For years, political leaders, the news media and other community leaders have urged the American public to turn out and vote. We bemoaned low turnouts in election after election, fearing that a people too distracted by TV shows and video games were too comfy and cozy to muss their hands with the workings of government.
Until this year. For reasons that will be discussed for months to come, American voters seemed to be tuned into this election like never before. Whether it was the historic candidacies of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the crucial issues and difficult times the nation faces or just the chance to put some fresh faces into power, voter turnout was impressive.
In Hall County, nearly 76 percent of voters turned out to cast ballots over several weeks. In Georgia, the turnout was 67 percent, a bit lower than expected but up a bit from 2004. Nationwide, some 133 million voters cast ballots, about 63 percent of those eligible, the best turnout in 40 years.
During early and advance voting, Georgians willingly stood in lines for hours to cast a ballot. Some 3 million cast ballots early, more than half of those who voted overall.
And despite a few glitches and long lines, most kept their good humor and took it all in stride. Most importantly, they kept their place in line, determined to cast a vote in this historic election.
Hall County elections officials did a solid job of running the polls. Interim Elections Supervisor Charlotte Sosebee-Hunter had some big shoes to fill when longtime director Anne Phillips Lea retired a few years ago, but she has handled the job well and we offer our appreciation for the effort.
The process of voting has been under intense scrutiny since the nation's fouled-up election of 2000. It seems that with each new election, more problems are revealed and solutions offered. The move to electronic voting machines, for instance, offered a step forward in voter convenience and quick counting of votes, yet one backward in the form of technical glitches and lack of a verifiable paper trail, problems that still need to be worked out.
And the process of streamlining registration needs to continue. Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel was criticized for conducting strict background checks on some voters, while many still decry the state's voter ID requirement. Nationwide, stories of volunteer groups turning in bogus registration forms created concerns that fraud could tilt the results. Though there's no evidence any such fraud occurred, safeguards to ensure that only legal voters take part are the best way to weed it out beforehand. Most of us are willing to accept common-sense methods to police the polls properly.
To head off such concerns, states, local jurisdictions and the federal government need to assess any problems that occurred and commit resources to fix them before the 2010 election. We need more reliable machines, more and better-trained poll workers and larger venues to accommodate a higher volume of voters. And with early voting proving to be so popular, election officials should plan on opening more polling sites in advance to help ease the rush.
All of this is a big expense, to be sure, but this falls under the category of money that has to be spent to maintain public confidence in our voting system.
Columnist George Will recently wrote, "Elections are government projects, so perhaps it is utopian to expect them to be run well." In light of the many challenges involved, it isn't too much to ask that election officials be given every tool at their disposal to make sure they can give us their best effort in that utopian pursuit.
Meanwhile, the heightened interest in the presidential race trickled down to other races. State and local candidates received more votes than they would in an off year vote. Georgia voters were able to weigh in on three Constitutional amendments and other local issues that might have gotten little attention otherwise.
Now that the results are in, let's hope such a high level of participation won't fade. And we're not done: there will be a state runoff Dec. 2 to decide a handful of seats, including our U.S. senator. Voters who cared enough to vote Tuesday ought to finish the job and cast a ballot in the runoff as well.
When the new leaders take office next year, we need to make sure they live up to their promises. Write, call and e-mail their offices to let them know you're paying attention. Check Web sites and follow the ssues that are important to you. And if they let you down, make sure they know that your vote is not guaranteed next time.
If we stay engaged until the next election, our participation will be a given. This nation was founded on the principle that our representative democracy would be maintained by an involved electorate that keeps its hands firmly on the wheel. But over the years, the public let too much of that responsibility fall to its hired hands on government payrolls.
That's one reason the trappings of power have led to abuse and ethical violations by career politicians who often line their pockets from the public till. Yet the foxes only raid the henhouse when the farmer isn't paying attention.
Let's hope this year's active involvement by the American people is not just a blip on the radar but the start of a new age of civic participation. Instead, let it renew a democratic system that has survived for so long, even without our constant attention, because of its initial brilliance.