Americans identify most closely with local government in large measure because that is democracy's purest form. One would be hard-pressed to prove this, however, based on the meager turnout in most of the municipal elections held recently in Carroll County.
With the exception of the towns of Union Bridge and New Windsor, where nearly half the registered voters cast ballots, turnout in four other town elections averaged less than 25 percent. If local government is to be a meaningful expression of residents' collective will, more people must take part.
Dovetailing town elections with general elections held in the fall has been one suggestion to increase turnout. With national and state offices on top of the ballot, the number of people voting in municipal elections would probably increase. But the benefit might come at an unacceptable price.
Given the immense attention focused on the national and state races, local issues might get ignored to the detriment of town residents. Local government decisions on garbage collection or water treatment can have a greater day-to-day impact on people than a congressional vote or a presidential appointment. Town voters benefit when they can focus on local issues and candidates.
Also, Carroll's municipal elections are non-partisan affairs. By appending town races at the bottom of a general election ballot, local elections might assume the partisan coloration of state and national campaigns. Local candidates might feel compelled to stake out positions on those broader matters rather than addressing local needs. A town council candidate's position on a flat tax or gun control doesn't say much about how he or she would finance improvements for an aging water treatment plant or curb juvenile vandalism.
The present system of holding Carroll's municipal elections in off-years should be continued. Perhaps the towns should explore the possibility of holding weekend elections. With so many residents commuting a good distance to work, they don't have time to vote during weekdays. Yes, many of them find time during state and national elections, but the local races are less publicized, often less contentious and could use a little help. Getting more residents to the polls will enhance the quality of Carroll's civic life.