It’s election day here in the US, and it’s likely that voter turnout will be very low. Odd numbered years are usually ignored by many voters for many reasons – all of which are generally misguided.
People tend to get excited about going to the polls in presidential election years, of course. Turnout numbers are highest then. Even numbered years in general enjoy higher turnout rates, because there are lawmakers on the ballot.
But, with the exception of some special elections, odd numbered years tend to only have municipal and judicial seats on the ballot. Also, lawmakers often schedule otherwise contentious referendums for these elections, counting on low turnout and voter laziness to keep the numbers where they would like to see them.
Here are a few of the misguided notions voters have about why this year’s election doesn’t really matter:
There are no “important” offices up for election – Just because winning today doesn’t earn a trip to Washington or a state capital for a candidate doesn’t make the office unimportant. Typical offices on the ballot today include local executive, legislative, and judicial seats – yes, that system is at work even in your home town. Local executives are mayors, managers, county executives, etc., and they do essentially the same job as the president for your local area. Council people, commissioners, board members, etc. are the equivalent of Congress in your town or school district. Magistrates and judges are your local judicial branch. The reason why these people are arguably even more important than the people who end up in Washington is because the decisions they make will have an immediate effect on your daily life. The taxes they levy will be felt by you first, and unlike taxes from the Federal government, there are very few loopholes (if any) for you to avoid them. If you end up with a pushover for your local executive, that means your local legislators will have a much easier time passing higher taxes, or cutting services your community really needs. You can think that it doesn’t matter who your local magistrates and judges are, but you will care about that when you end up getting hit with an expensive traffic citation or fine for not cutting your grass.
My vote doesn’t count anyway – Ironically enough, that argument might be slightly more accurate in a presidential election than it ever will be in a local one. Many of the offices up for grabs today will be decided by margins of under 100 votes. Yes, it is quite possible that a single vote could trigger recounts in some races today. When races have such a small number of people eligible to vote for a given office, every vote counts. These are also the elections where a write-in candidate could very easily win the election.
I don’t even know what half the offices on the ballot do anyway – While some of the offices up for election today are obvious (like coroner or tax collector), there may be some that are utterly unfamiliar. Ones like prothonotary (chief court clerk) are a little nebulous for many voters. Before the age of Google, questions about those offices could be posed to poll or election bureau workers. You can still ask them, but let your fingers do the walking! Learn about the offices, and what those people do. In the case of the prothonotary, that person is in charge of overseeing court documents, and that person’s office is where you would go in a courthouse to see case files that haven’t been sealed from public view. Given all the trouble that we see daily about information being withheld by the government (or leaked by people who shouldn’t have that information), maybe the gatekeeper of your own local court files really is an important office after all?
What’s a referendum? Why should I care? – Referendums are usually issues that legislators put on the ballot so that they can get a popular vote on something that they don’t want to decide on their own, or that they must put on the ballot because of rules built into a state’s constitution. The former are usually hot button issues, and the latter are usually state constitutional amendments. Unfortunately, the rules usually don’t require that these issues be placed on the ballot during a particular year, so they end up on the odd numbered years – legislators are relying on you skipping the polls today. Another trick of their trade is to word these measures in a confusing way, even to the point where people will think that they are voting for one thing but in reality they are choosing the opposite. This is where the poll workers can help you out a little. While they can’t tell people what position to take, usually they can let you know which choice to make when you tell them where you actually stand on the issue. If they honestly can’t, you can still contact your county election bureau by phone or online, depending on how “plugged in” your county is. Otherwise, watch the “no’s and not’s” in the wording. One typical trick used in referendums is double and triple negatives. Remember, double negatives usually do add up to a positive. Also, check the status quo on the issue. Pennsylvania tried to pull a fast one on this with mandatory retirement ages for judges, by not mentioning in the referendum that the existing retirement age was actually lower than the one proposed. The way it was worded, it appeared that the people were voting on creating a mandatory retirement age for the first time, not extending an existing one. Why it mattered was that it would cost taxpayers more money when the judges finally would retire, because their pensions were based on their highest pay and they receive raises yearly. Also, increasing retirement ages could leave the people with judges who honestly shouldn’t have been on the bench due to mental deficits from old age – senile judges are cute on TV, but not in actual courtrooms. The bottom line is this: Do you really want to sit at home and let some politicians pull a fast one on you with a questionable referendum?
Today, you have the opportunity to elect the people who will have the most influence on your daily life when they take office. There is no “trickle down government” effect here, like we see with most changes in federal government. The decisions these people make in your home town will effect every person in your community immediately. Thankfully, these leaders are also going to have to deal with the voters directly on a daily basis. But, do you really want to skip deciding who collects your local taxes, determines the fines for your grass being too tall, sets the cost of parking in your business district, when and if your local roads get repaired, what your kids learn in the classroom, etc.? This is where the rubber hits the road in government. Are you in the driver’s seat, or just along for the ride?