What if they threw an election and nobody came?
That’s becoming all too close to reality in Springfield, where the 2019 preliminary vote drew a turnout of 7.6 percent.
For every 14 voters who were eligible, 13 didn’t show up. Low turnouts plague the democratic process from sea to shining sea, but Springfield’s single-digit numbers are notable because this is a city making major changes, and one with an annual budget of $691.7 million, and a city whose residents demand progressive action and change but are not taking the brief time to help make it happen.
Various ideas have been floated to spark turnout. City council member Jesse Lederman proposed that robocalls and post cards be sent to voters, alerting them of upcoming elections. The robocall aspect was later dropped, and post cards were approved by the City Council but never funded, and thus not sent.
Skeptics include Mayor Domenic Sarno, who said education and coordination with school activities might better serve the goal. Others say there’s no proof post cards, which would cost the city several thousand dollars, would significantly increase turnout.
That’s a cynical response in contrast to Lederman’s idea, which at least offers an idea. But sad to say, the reasons for such skepticism cannot be summarily dismissed.
Another objection is that by actively trying to get out the vote, the municipal government is taking on a duty that belongs to the candidates. That’s true, but again, it’s not a solution.
Benjamin Franklin said Americans will have democracy for as long as they want it. When the 2016 presidential election took place, emotions were high to the point of hysteria as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton presented their very different visions of where America should go.
Four out of every nine eligible American voters still didn’t show up.
The 2019 Springfield ballot did have a mayoral component that matched an established incumbent, Sarno, against a political newcomer. Runner-up Yolanda Cancel qualified for the final election.
Give Cancel credit: she is participating in the process. She’s trying. Calling her a long shot, though, is not unfair.
There was one ward council preliminary (Ward 4). Eleven at-large candidates competed for 10 spots in the final election. There’s been some talk of saving expense by eliminating the preliminary election altogether, but opponents argue that the path to better democracy is not found by holding fewer elections.
Another criticism is that placing the incumbents atop the ballot, rather than a full alphabetical listing or by lottery, gives the incumbents an unfair advantage. There’s something to this; studies show ballot placement does matter. Citizens choosing their candidates simply by marking off the top names, though, are hardly making their case as informed voters.
Yet these residents are at least showing up. When 13 out of every 14 eligible voters don’t, these people are the ones making the decision for everybody.
We often hear the old refrain: if you don’t vote, don’t complain. That’s not true; the First Amendment gives you the right to complain. Just don’t be angry or surprised if nobody listens.
Voter apathy is a problem almost everywhere. It’s a crisis in Springfield. Ben Franklin’s words are haunting in their truth.
We say it all the time but we will say it again: put a short amount of time aside on November 5, and exercise the right for which our troops have fought and died, and whose results will affect every resident of Springfield, whether you voice your opinion or not.
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