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Local elections should turn out the voters, but…

Poor turnout at the polls is something we’ve grown to expect. Nationally, about a third of eligible voters don’t bother to vote in presidential elections. Since historically, off-year (non-presidential) November elections have even poorer turnout and June elections are worst of all, it’s probably worth pausing to consider why we choose to vote or not to vote.

Do those who vote think in terms of patriotic duty or is it more a matter of a long-established habit? Are those not voting disenchanted or are they also creatures of habit – the habit of indifference? Is it that citizens don’t think they have a stake in election outcomes, or are they so used to their democratic rights, they can’t imagine elections resulting in losing them?

Logically, local elections should bring greater turnouts than state and national elections. After all, we actually know people running on the local level – they are our neighbors – and the decisions local politicians make affect us in immediate and tangible ways, anything from street repair and fire department size to skateboard park hours and school assignments. Nobody is more accountable than a local official. And yet, as if we don’t really care who is in charge or how our lives are affected, a large number of us do not see the point in voting. (Would we be more excited if instead of those “I voted” stickers they give out, election officials had us dip our fingers in dye the way they do in Arab countries?)

Local elections reflect the general apathy that plagues America nationally, and, for that matter, apathy that plagues established democracies internationally. Apathy has been the hallmark of a longstanding downward drift in voter percentages among democracies. (America’s overall decline began after 1960.) Citing a variety of sources and studies, a Wikipedia article on the subject of voter turnout showed the negative voting trend for democratic nations: the “U.S.A. Western Europe, Japan and Latin America.”

Noted as significant, these sliding percentages of voters have mirrored the “general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal and student societies, youth groups and parent-teacher associations.” The implication is that the waning of traditional community affiliations directly relates to lower voter turnouts. Citizens want their rights without bothering with community responsibilities, including voting.

Interestingly, as personal civic participation has decreased, “(p)eople have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.” In other words, the desire to wield influence hasn’t changed, but voting no longer is seen as having much to do with it.

Although some statistics in the article were as recent as 2010, there was no mention of social media in the mix, which seems like a glaring oversight. Participatory media, such as Facebook and Twitter, provide outlets for political pontificating. Yet, the people who hold forth online might be least likely to vote for local governance – school boards, park boards or city councils. They want to kvetch about national politics with people who think the way they do. They let off steam and feel better for doing so.

But they don’t vote.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, which shook our nation to the core, patriotism was everybody’s watchword, unifying us and giving us resolve. Unfortunately, patriotism also became an intimidating force, short circuiting good sense and skepticism among leaders (think, the unnecessary Iraq war). More than a decade later, we are war weary, still supportive of the troops, but disillusioned.

Perhaps worst of all, our notion of patriotism is stunted in militarism instead of renewed in civic responsibility. The basic truth is real patriots vote.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email