The latest city council election has come and gone, and if you didn’t notice or pay much attention to it, you can hardly be blamed. Of the four seats up for grabs, only one was contested—and that one only barely. Only one of the two candidates for that seat waged a visible campaign. He won, quite predictably, with 84% of the vote cast.
Of greater interest, at least to those who followed the election at all, was the miniscule turnout, which The Flash estimated at about 5%. This is hardly surprising, at least to those who are familiar with general patterns of voter behavior. Whether it’s good or bad is a different question.
The elections in America which attract the most voters are those for President. Presidential campaigns spend the most money, elicit the most media attention, concern the most interesting issues, and thereby stimulate the highest turnout rates of any election. Yet the highest voter turnout rate in the past century was 63.1% in the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960. In most elections since then, the turnout rate has been less than 60%. In 1996 (Clinton-Dole), the rate actually dropped to 49%. In 2016 it was about 59%.
And for all other elections, turnout is almost always less than 50%. Races for congress and state and local offices simply don’t generate enough interest among enough voters to create a high turnout rate. It should surprise nobody that in the absence of contested races and significant publicity, and with no significant public discussion of the issues, if any, the turnout rate in Stephenville in 2019 was as low as it was. To the contrary, it’s about par for the course.
But is this healthy or not for democracy? Most who comment on the low rate bemoan the apparent lack of interest in politics and government that nonvoters are allegedly showing. They say that this is a poor state of affairs, that democracy is endangered, and that those who don’t vote have no right to complain about anything.
I personally wouldn’t go that far. I don’t believe that a failure to vote is necessarily a sign of poor citizenship, especially if nonvoters otherwise pay their taxes and obey the law. One could be happy with the current state of affairs, believe that there is little prospect it will change, and therefore decide not to vote. Besides, it could be argued that if one stays home from the polls on Election Day because he considers himself either too ignorant or too apathetic to vote, he’s actually doing the political system a big favor by not voting. After all, isn’t it better to abstain from voting than to cast a vote out of ignorance, or with no interest in the election results?
But whatever the merits of voting over nonvoting, it should be clear that all choices, including choosing not to choose, have consequences, and the greatest consequence is this: All governments’ policies benefit and discriminate in favor of those who participate, over those who don’t. For example, on average, about 40% of eligible voters 25 years old or younger actually go to the polls. But about 70% of voters aged 65 or older do so. The program on which the federal government spends the most money is Social Security, which taxes the young and gives to the old. Coincidence? You be the judge.
And soon the city council will begin drawing up next fiscal year’s budget and tax rate, thereby deciding who gets to pay how much for which services. Some will like the consequences of the decisions made by the city council—which actually will be the consequences of the decisions we made at the polls yesterday and during the early voting period—and some will not. But we’ll all have to live with the consequences anyway.
So—to those who won your races yesterday, congratulations. To those who lost—at least you tried. To those who voted, well done. To those who didn’t, well, it was your right to choose not to do so. And to everyone—whatever the consequences of the election, be ready to accept them for the time being, be ready to fight to preserve them, if you choose, and be ready to fight to change them, if you so choose. The next election is only a year away.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.