Low municipal voter turnout bodes ill for our future

Published 7:32 pm Monday, May 8, 2017

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann reported low voter turnout in the recent round of state municipal elections. That’s distressing on any number of levels.

The late Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts once famously said that “all politics is local.” Indeed, municipal elections don’t determine the nation’s foreign policy, don’t set the perimeters of national economic policy and certainly don’t determine the makeup of the federal appellate courts.

But municipal elections have a lot to do with garbage collection, street maintenance, and the status of local schools. Most municipal officials agree that another key component of their official duties centers on the ever-volatile status of laws regulating the behavior of dogs and their owners.

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That vast power for local officials is balanced against the setting and adjustment of water rates. And speaking of water, municipal water decisions also impact fire insurance rates in the municipality.

So with those burning local issues on the agenda in Mississippi municipal government, why would voters shy away from participating in municipal elections? It seems counterintuitive at best and just plain lazy and short-sighted at worst.

What’s the most prevalent excuse offered by those who don’t vote in Mississippi? Too busy, or that they simply forgot to vote.

George Orwell, ever distrustful of government and Big Brother, once cynically observed: “For the ordinary man is passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade unions or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavoring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.”

Orwell has a point. When we choose to be too busy, too disaffected, too lazy or too cynical to cast a vote we indeed choose to lie down and take whatever we get from government. Forgetting to vote suggests a level of isolation that seems impossible in today’s information age.

In the most recent presidential election in 2016, Mississippi voters turned in laudable numbers at over 1.2 million, but voter participation was down from 2012.

In a number of Mississippi municipalities, not only was voter participation down but candidate participation was on the wane as well. In several Mississippi towns, the entire slate of incumbents were re-elected because none of them draw challengers.

In many, many cases, municipal elections put candidates in power who are neglected by a majority of a minority of registered voters in the municipality. Is it then any wonder that people often find themselves in conflict with the elected government that they were too busy to help choose?

That development begs the question of the concept of “low information voters” and how those voters either contribute or fail to contribute to municipal election outcomes.

“Low information voters” are portrayed as folks who are motivated to vote, but who do so with scant information about the candidates they support or the specific platform and policies the candidates they vote for support or promote.

What occurs to me while watching low turnout ensue in local elections is the realization that while many of my fellow citizens find themselves “too busy” to vote, many seem to always have time to engage in slash-and-burn social media exchanges with supporters of candidates they don’t like.

Would that the level of partisan vitriol expended on Facebook and Twitter translate into people standing in line to voting in every election. Until then, many of us choose to live with municipal officials chosen by our more responsible neighbors down the street.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him sidsalter@sidsalter.com.