Catering to Apathy

22May11

Welcome to WakefieldNote to 89 percent of the registered voters in Wakefield, Massachusetts: There was a Town Election on April 26, 2011.

Sorry you couldn’t make it.

Two selectmen, two School Committee Members and an Assessor were elected. And those were just the contested races.

It’s been noted that the 2011 Wakefield Town Election may have seen the lowest turnout in local history, with 89 percent of registered voters avoiding anything resembling a voting booth.

But not to worry. Eleven percent of the voters decided who will represent your local interests for the next three years.
Selectmen Patrick Glynn & Betsy SheeranYou’re welcome.

Last week, Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio floated the idea of doing away with spring Town Elections altogether and instead setting the election of town officers to coincide with the fall state and federal elections. In addition to saving the expense of separate spring elections, Maio argued that state and federal elections draw more voters so holding local elections at the same time would increase turnout. Maio admitted that there would be logistical matters to work out, but members of the Board of Selectmen were receptive to exploring the possibility.
Wakefield Board of Selectmen
Much has been made of the pathetic turnout in the recent Town Election, but local participation for state elections isn’t always much better. The riveting September 16, 2008 state primary drew a whopping 12.71 percent of Wakefield voters. Extra police details were not called in to manage the crowds at the polls. Who knew back then that we’d now be looking back with proud nostalgia at the 2008 Town Election’s 16.44 percent turnout as a touchstone of civic participation?

Piggy's Ice CreamAt various times and places, different incentives have been tried to increase voter turnout – because as we saw recently, having a voice in the affairs of their own community was not a sufficient motivation for almost 90 percent of voters. In cooperation with the business community, municipalities have tried offering vouchers for a free ice cream cone or cup of coffee when presenting a special “I voted” sticker obtained at the polling place.

Another idea has been Saturday voting, apparently based on the idea that nobody ever works on Saturday.

Along the same lines, it’s has been suggested that we should try what some European countries do and make Election Day a holiday so everyone will have time to go and vote. That’s just what we need in the current economy – another day when no one works.

Even though a lot of us have two jobs to make ends meet, it’s hard to believe that on Tuesday, April 26, 90 percent of the Wakefield electorate were working from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and thus could not make it to the polls. Absentee ballots and early voting policies have deprived even the most determined workaholics of any excuse.

Ironically, the more removed the candidates are from the voters, the more people tend to come out to vote. In general, more people do vote in state and federal elections than in local elections. Locally, 83 percent of Wakefield voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election. Just don’t expect to see a federal crew fixing the potholes on Salem Street any time soon.

Election signStill, if the public perceives a direct interest, they will come out for a local election. When, in 2008, Town Meeting voted a School Department budget that was $2 million higher than the Finance Committee recommendation, 3,914 voters went to the polls in the subsequent special election that defeated the higher budget. That’s more than twice the 1,880 who voted in the last Town Election.

Some countries, like Australia, have compulsory voting. I would feel compelled to vote against any candidate who wanted to make voting mandatory.

In some ways, low voter turnout can be seen as an indication that the best informed, most involved voters are making the decisions regarding local affairs. A self-selected oligarchy, if you will.

Monetary and merchandise incentives, tax deductions, lotteries and other inducements for luring voters to the polls only serve to cheapen the right to vote, which one would think would be its own incentive.

Besides, do we really want even more ill-informed people showing up at the polls just for the Starbucks coupon?

Make it Dunkin’ Donuts and we’ll talk.

[This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2011 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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