Tuesday's state primary ballot offers area voters only a handful of contested races and a limited selection of candidates. Depending on where you live and which party you favor, there may only be a race or two in which your vote is required to make a difference.
That's a shame, no doubt, and we would like to see a ballot full of candidates and varied choices, in both parties.
So why bother then? That's a valid question. So here's a valid answer: Because someone has to.
Even when the ballot offers a limited selection, voters need to do their part to ensure that the most qualified candidates will head their party's ticket in November. Otherwise, a bare handful of family, friends and supporters will be able to decide who holds elected office in our counties and states.
The problem we face is that so few people vote to begin with that each vote matters that much more, especially when competitive races are few and most incumbents have an easy ticket back into office. When the more committed voters also decide to stay home, even fewer votes are needed to nominate a candidate.
So who votes and who doesn't? The U.S. Census Bureau recently released new data on American voting habits. The picture is one that is somewhat disappointing, but not too surprising, and shows what we've pretty much suspected all along: Most eligible U.S. voters don't bother to cast a ballot.
The data is from the 2006 congressional elections, in which some 96 million Americans went to the polls, up 7 million from the 2002 vote. That's around 48 percent of voting-age citizens, the highest percentage recorded by the census bureau since it began keeping stats in 1994.
Yet that means that a majority of Americans, some 52 percent, still can't be enticed to join in selecting their leaders at the polls, and prefer to pass that task on to others.
The numbers are even lower in Georgia, where about 44 percent of voting-age adults turned out. Even that turnout is likely higher than what we'll see in Tuesday's state primary.
For one thing, primaries never draw the kind of interest you get in a general election. A check of the ballots shows fewer contested races across the board statewide. One-party rule in Georgia has shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, leaving little variety on the ballot for most voters.
With so few seats hanging in the balance, it's hard to persuade voters to turn out in the July heat. Some are on vacation, off at the lake or pool or engaged in other activities. And some folks just aren't tuned in to the intraparty battles that are decided in a primary election. If you're more inclined to support independent candidates or those in parties other than the big two, there's no reason for you to cast a ballot this month.
Yet another trend reflected in some of the voter breakdowns from 2006 is that the very people who may have the most to gain or lose by their choices at the ballot box often don't take part. The numbers showed that:
- Only 22 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 voted, compared to 63 percent of those ages 55 and older. You'd think younger folks who will be affected by government policies and will pay taxes for decades to come would want more of a say in those decisions. That trend may be changing, but slowly.
- Americans with a higher level of education were more likely to vote; 61 percent of college graduates with a bachelor's degree cast a ballot, but only 27 percent of eligible citizens who don't have a high school diploma.
- Consequently, Americans with higher incomes ($50,000 and more) were more likely to vote (59 percent) than lose in lower-income brackets ($20,000 and less, 31 percent).
So fewer Americans who are younger or belong to minority groups, along those with lower educational levels and incomes, don't think it's worth their time to vote. Yet who else among us is likely to be the most affected by government policies? Until they choose to get involved, they can't expect things to change that much on their behalf.
However, there is hope that this will change and that the fall election will draw considerable interest. Presidential races are the headline act of any election, and this year's offers an open White House and fascinating choices on the heels of two competitive nomination campaigns. And if the presidential candidates can get folks excited enough to turn out at the polls in strong numbers, it should also help boost interest in state and local candidates down the ticket.
On Tuesday's ballot in Hall County, there are two Board of Commissioners races, one in each party. Voters also will be able to choose a new Clerk of Courts and select between incumbents and challengers for Tax Commissioner and Probate Judge. There also are competitive races in Habersham, White, Dawson, Lumpkin and Forsyth counties for key local offices. Several state legislators face opponents, and Democratic voters statewide will be able to select a fall challenger to face U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss from a handful of hopefuls.
Thus, we believe that wherever you live, the primary ballot offers ample motivation to make the trek to the polls, if you haven't already voted. And if you're not inclined toward the two major parties' slate of candidates, we hope you're biding your time and assessing the candidates so you can make a final choice in November.
Voting isn't just for some of us, nor is it just a hobby for those who keep up with politics. It is the foundation of our system of government, which will only work for the good of all when more of us take the time to get involved.