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Our Views: Apathy on the ballot
Weak voter turnouts a mystery; how can more people become involved in process?
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What if they held an election and nobody voted?

Don’t scoff; at times, it appears we’re headed in that direction.

Voter turnout tends to dip below reasonable levels in elections that don’t include a high-profile presidential race. The odd race for governor or senator might pull in half of voters, but most state and local elections draw a third of them or fewer.

And in some cases, quite a bit fewer. Last week’s sales tax vote in Hall County drew just 6.5 percent of registered voters. That meant some 5,400 people decided that the other 180,000-plus county residents and hundreds of thousands of visitors will pay an extra penny per dollar whenever they buy something here.

We supported the SPLOST passage, but would have preferred to see more people engaged in the issue and casting ballots. Anecdotal evidence suggested some degree of opposition, but that didn’t materialize on Election Day. It seems some folks would rather gripe about a tax than take action against it.

Critics argued, perhaps with some merit, that the sales tax vote was intentionally steered into March in an off-year, on a ballot to itself, to ensure it would fly under the radar and pass. But there’s an easy way to combat that: Go vote against it. Nobody can stop that.

This was is the latest example of an electorate seemingly no longer willing to take part in representative democracy. For some 240 years, the government our Founding Fathers established was based on the people selecting representatives to manage their public affairs. Yet this type of governance only works when someone does the selecting before the representing.

In recent years, only presidential elections draw large voter participation. Georgia had a 72 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential race and a decent 50 percent in last year’s races for governor and senator. Electing a president is important,
but he or she doesn’t run the show alone; it takes many leaders in various roles, from the White House down to state legislatures, county commissions, city councils and local school boards.

And voting is more convenient than ever, notwithstanding the ongoing debate over voter ID laws. Georgians can vote over three weeks, including a Saturday, in advance of election day. Absentee ballots are readily available, precincts are numerous and convenient and electronic voting machines are easy to use. So what’s the excuse?

Blame a general mood of cynicism, with many Americans feeling they no longer have a say in government matters due to harsh partisanship and left- and right-wing extremism. They believe big-moneyed special interests have poisoned the system and removed average folks from the process. If that’s true, it’s only because the absence of committed constituents have let it happen.

This is one of those chicken-and-egg issues for which the problem is the solution. People don’t vote because they feel they’ve lost the power to make a difference. But they lose that power by throwing in the towel and failing to wield their influence at the ballot box. The sure way to lose a battle is to give up without a fight.

Don’t think candidates and their campaign strategists don’t know this. Special interests maintain control over elections because they know a well-financed campaign that targets key likely voter groups can steer the results when turnout remains iffy and public interest is lukewarm. Ideas that might appeal to a broader base of voters — sometimes ideas of any kind — are lost in the mix. Instead we get negative ads, slogans and slick campaigns focused on personalities rather than policies, aimed at voters’ baser instincts.

Here we find another mobius strip: If better candidates and campaigns appealed to voters, more might take part. But we’d get better candidates seeking office if voters regularly came out in stronger numbers.

President Barack Obama, beneficiary of the last two big voter turnouts, last week floated the idea of making voting mandatory. Many countries fine scofflaws for staying home and insist on full participation. Critics jumped on the president’s notion, though it appeared to be more of a blue-sky idea than policy proposal.

There still are countries in which the concept of selecting government leaders remains new and exciting. Would-be voters sometimes risk their lives and brave gunfire to stand in line and vote. But in our country, we see voter turnout drop if the weatherman predicts a 20 percent chance of rain.

Maybe, then, we really do get the government we deserve, as has so often been said.

Most of us share the president’s desire to find a way to get more Americans involved in running their country. Admittedly, though, mandatory voting is a nonstarter, for reasons both logistic and philosophical. In the end, you can lead a horse to the polls, but you can’t make him vote for the right reasons.

Similarly, a carrot instead of a stick in the form of incentives — Tax breaks? Chicken sandwich coupons? — would similarly lead to an electorate motivated by something other than democratic principles. We have enough campaigns geared toward trivial matters as it is.

What is needed isn’t just more voters, but also better voters, casting informed ballots based on ideals and an understanding of the issues. Herding people to the polls by hook or crook won’t accomplish that. But what can connect more people who feel alienated from our political system?

Next year’s presidential race likely will lure a healthy turnout, particularly with an open seat in the Oval Office and a large field of diverse candidates. If only that level of interest could carry over into future elections at all levels, providing more leaders responsive to those they serve.

Without that surge in citizen participation, our democratic ideals, like our polling places, will become ever more empty.

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