The Simple Art of Voting

16May15

Every time there’s a low-turnout local election or Town Meeting (or both, as we recently had in Wakefield) talk inevitably turns to ways to improve voter turnout and participation. On the surface, it seems like a noble idea.

magic_mountain“How can we make voting easier?” people wonder, as if voting were a task akin to climbing Mt. Everest. All kinds of ideas are proposed. Allow online voting, some say. Others advocate “early voting.” Instead of one Election Day, people could vote any time that’s convenient for them over a period of a month.

Our recent annual Town Meeting drew 320 voters, which seems like a lot by recent standards. But the number was greatly inflated by those who came only to vote for the school budget increase and then quietly slipped out once that passed. By the time the meeting was winding down at 10 p.m., the usual 180 or so regulars were left doing the grunt work.

I’m now convinced that there’s nothing wrong with that.

When it comes to voting, I’ve become pro-choice. I believe it’s every person’s right to choose not to vote or attend Town Meeting. If someone can’t be bothered doing something as easy as voting, they almost certainly haven’t taken the time to know the candidates or the issues at stake.

Encouraging people to vote who have no idea what they’re voting on is insane.

The problem isn’t that voting is difficult. Voting is easy. The problem is apathy and ignorance. Making voting even easier won’t fix those problems.

All sorts of ideas for increasing participation at Town Meeting have been proposed, including moving from our current Open Town Meeting to a Representative Town Meeting. A few years ago, a Boston Globe op-ed columnist suggested making Town Meeting purely a discussion and debate forum with voting on Town Meeting articles taking place separately by ballot in an election. That way, if residents want to vote on things like the town budget, they wouldn’t have to give up a whole evening.

town_meeting050415a

I understand that attending Town Meeting isn’t easy for everyone. People have family obligations. After working hard all day, who wants to spend the evening listening to ponderous speeches?

Yet every May and every November the same 200 or so faces somehow manage to appear in the auditorium. Who is this leisure class? Do they not have jobs or families?

I know parents who take turns going to Town Meeting. Others get a babysitter so both can go. People go to far greater lengths for a lot less.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s no will – fine. Stay home.
But don’t call for a total overhaul of the system because you can’t be bothered leaving the house for one night a year. The 200 folks who do their homework will be happy to continue making decisions on your behalf.

DropboxNot to mention the fact that those who care enough to attend Town Meeting and vote in elections tend to be a self-selected cross section of informed voters. Have you been on Facebook lately? Do you really want every slacker and wingnut with a smartphone and a grudge voting on the town budget via the anonymity of the internet?

I daresay the 11.4 percent school budget hike that Town Meeting just passed would not have been nearly as much of a slam dunk if it were up for online voting. Be careful what you wish for.

Making it easier to vote or take part in Town Meeting may increase participation slightly, but will it really increase the quality of that participation?

People tend to value those things in which they have invested time, effort or money. Sure, being able to vote in elections or attend Town Meeting by sitting on your couch and pressing buttons on a computer would be easier. But would people take it seriously? Would they consider something that requires so little effort even worth their attention?

We expect so little of citizenship in this country as it is. If we ask much less, people won’t value it at all.

[This column originally appeared in the May 14, 2015 Wakefield Daily Item.]

Smart phone photo by Johan Larsson.

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