Monday, April 4, 2011

Voter turnout stinks; could mail ballots be the culprit?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 11:08 AM


A recurring motif of our biennial April city elections: wildly disparate turnout.

During the past five mayoral elections (1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2007), turnout has ranged from a low of 16.46 percent of registered voters (1995) to a high of 57.53 percent (2003).

The low-water mark of 16.46 percent was achieved, if that’s the right word, at the midpoint of the decade-long boom of the 1990s. Satisfied voters re-elected all four incumbent at-large City Council members, and gave Mayor Bob Isaac a fourth term in office. Isaac received 79 percent of the vote, a margin that is unlikely to be matched in any future election.

In 2003, when Lionel Rivera was elected to the first of two terms, four incumbent Council members ran for the office. The three moderates in the race (Sallie Clark, Jim Null, and Ted Eastburn) together accounted for a substantial majority of votes cast, but the more conservative Rivera managed to sneak in with 35 percent of the vote.

Perhaps significantly, this was the last mayoral election conducted before the advent of mail-ballot only elections.

The four-way race created plenty of interest, as did the proposed extension of the TOPS (trails and open space) initiative, which passed easily.

Four years later in the first mail-ballot only mayoral election of 2007, turnout declined to 41.45 percent, as Rivera cruised to victory against a lackadaisical field of little-known, under-financed, and poorly qualified contenders.

And this year?

Despite the change in the form of government, the sluggish economy and the high-decibel rhetoric from candidates and their supporters, it looks as if we may not even break 40 percent of active voters who were sent mail ballots.

Why not? Is it the fault of an apathetic, uninvolved, and disinterested electorate? Are we so careless of our future that we’re willing to entrust it to the few folks who bother to vote? Or are there structural problems in the way we conduct elections that inhibit rather than enhance turnout?

Well yeah, we’re less engaged than we should be — shame on us! Bad voters! Bad citizens! Next time, you go vote!

Voting by mail, so widely touted as a means of boosting turnout and reducing costs, is not pleasant and rewarding. It’s just an irritating little job, one that disconnects the voter from the election — in fact, there really isn’t an election. It’s a procedure, not a visible celebration of democracy.

It’s particularly easily ignored by voters younger than 30, to whom snail mail is as quaint and irrelevant as rotary-dial home telephones. Their mailboxes/home addresses are their laptops/IPhones.

And even a platinum-certified geezer like me no longer uses the mail for much of anything. You mean I have to fill out this ballot, take it to the post office, stand in line, buy stamps, and mail it? How quaint!
And let’s face it: With one or two exceptions, this year’s crop of candidates isn’t exactly inspiring. As one seasoned political observer remarked to me a couple of months ago,

“I dunno, John, but this isn’t exactly the Colorado Springs A-Team!”

I voted anyway, and so should we all. Remember, if the Dougster and/or his cronies manage to get themselves elected, don’t complain about the local crazies if you didn’t mail in your vote.

It’ll just mean that the crazies did their civic duty — and you didn’t.

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