Democracy: 80 percent of it is just showing up


September 13, 1998|By Brian Sullam

ON TUESDAY, a minority of residents in Anne Arundel County will make decisions for everyone else.

If this year's turnout follows the pattern of four years ago, about 40 percent of registered voters will bother to cast ballots this week.

This means that 87,000 people will select the Democratic and Republican nominees for state and county offices. The candidates who ultimately win the general election in November will make decisions that effect the 87,000 who voted -- and the remaining 383,000 residents. (Granted about 115,000 of the residents are too young to vote, but their parents are not and would, presumably, vote in their children's interests.)

Put another way, every person who casts a ballot will decide for three of his neighbors.

We should all be ashamed. For a country that prides itself on democratic rule and has established itself as an example for the rest of the world, this poor turnout -- which is representative of turnouts throughout the nation -- reflects badly on all of us.

'Extinction from apathy'

"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush," wrote Robert Maynard Hutchins, the late president of the University of Chicago and author of "Great Books." "It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."

How can an elected official know what "the people" want if the people don't vote.

Any elected official who bothered to examine the 1994 results would be very responsive to voters older than 50. Of the 74,000 registered voters 50 and older, about 38,800 cast ballots in the primary.

Small wonder then that when the elderly complain about the lack of senior centers or the tax bite on their fixed incomes, politicians respond. If they don't, the silver-haired electorate could extract its measure of revenge in the next election.

The same can't be said for younger voters. Only about 18 percent of 18- and 19-year olds who were registered participated in the '94 primary, according to the Board of Election Supervisors.

Voters between the ages of 20 and 24 have an even worse record, which proves getting older doesn't make you smarter. Four years ago, only 14 percent of that age group bothered to cast ballots.

If large numbers of young families showed up at the polls and voted their interests -- for example, to ensure that their children attended well-equipped schools -- the county executive and council would have to think twice about cutting education spending.

Since so few of these residents vote, elected officials don't fear their wrath.

Ironically, the people who don't vote often are the ones that complain the loudest when public policy doesn't go their way. How can anyone display with pride a bumper sticker that says: "Don't blame me, I didn't vote."

Residents should be able to figure out that an elected official who consistently ignores his voting constituents doesn't stay in office long. They should also be able to figure out that an elected official will survive a long time ignoring complains of constituents who complain but never vote.

Poor levels of participation create an even more insidious situation. When voters stay home, they allow special interests to have a disproportionate voice in deciding public policy.

Special interests can't elect a public official, but they can pay for his or her campaign. Since many politicians worry more about obtaining campaign donations than they do votes, they are more willing to dote on contributors rather than voters. The result: Elected officials treat voters as though they don't matter.

Voters can empower themselves. They just have to register and exercise their right.

It's too late to register for Tuesday's primary, but voters have until 9 p.m. Oct. 5 to register for the Nov. 3 general election.

Although money looms large in most campaigns, it still takes votes to win elective office.

Woody Allen once opined that "80 percent of success is showing up."

That could apply to democracy, too.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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