Unlike many other countries, exercising one’s right to vote in the U.S. is not a life-or-death proposition. Citizens in nations where democracy is fledgling and fragile are willing to literally risk life and limb to cast ballots.
Their sacrifices to participate in democracy stand in sharp contrast to voter turnout in the U.S., where having two-thirds of eligible Americans bother to cast ballots for president is looked upon as exceptional.
The past 10 elections in which the office of president has been decided — more voters show up for those — turnout has ranged from 51.7% (1996) to 61.6% (2008) of the voting eligible population. In midterm elections — even though they decide such offices as U.S. representative, U.S. senator, governor and state and county positions — turnout doesn’t crack 50%.
In a way, this is all backwards. A citizen really wanting his or her vote to “count” will have more influence on a local election, where just a few hundred or thousand voters turn out, than a presidential contest, where nearly 130 million voters participate.
Look at it this way: Would you rather have an entry in a raffle where the drawing involves 100 tickets or 1 million tickets?
Which brings us to Tuesday, Nov. 5. It will be Election Day across Iowa. Not a presidential election. Not even a midterm election. It’s a local election, deciding seats on city councils and school boards. In the Dubuque school district, the ballot includes a tax referendum.
These are elections in which, though the offices don’t hold the prominence of president, the outcomes are important. Who serves in City Hall or the Courthouse, and how they perform their jobs, might actually have greater impact on local citizens’ lives day to day.
Yet too many eligible voters take a pass. Two years ago, the Dubuque municipal election, which featured a mayor’s race and two open council seats, turnout was 18% — not great still but pushing double the 10% average of the five city elections before that.
While some folks might consider their vote in a city council or school board election a drop in the proverbial bucket, that drop causes more ripples than a statewide or national race, where their vote is like a drop in the Mississippi.
As we have stated in this space a couple of times lately, in noting the paltry personal voting records of a couple of Dubuque City Council candidates, the baseline of citizenship — of “wanting to give back the community,” as so many office-seekers claim — is not seeking elected office. It’s voting.
The Dubuque School Board election is shaping up to be a non-event, with four candidates (including three incumbents) seeking four seats — a board majority, by the way.
However, the Dubuque City Council election offers some voters some important decisions, including some quality candidates going head-to-head and some candidates who are an ill fit for elective office. Voters across Iowa might be facing similar scenarios in the local school and municipal elections.
Sure, turn out to vote a year from now, when occupancy of the White House will be decided. But before that, Iowans, show up anytime between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday.
It might not mean life or death literally, but the results of local elections do impact your life in your community.