Speaking last week at a regular meeting of the Edgewood Community Council, Jansen Robinson touched upon one of the greatest disgraces of American civic life, namely that too many people just can't be bothered to vote.
Robinson, who has been an Edgewood community activist for a number of years and has made an unsuccessful run for public office, also hit the nail on the head when he enumerated the penalty for not voting, namely being neglected by the government.
As Robinson eloquently put it: "If we lived up to our potential we would never have to ask elected officials for anything. They would come to us... because they want our vote."
Instead, the situation is one where apathy when it comes to the voting booth goes hand in hand with apathy about community issues. He pointed out that a public forum where voters could find out about candidates drew a handful of people in a community with thousands who are eligible, though possibly not registered, to vote.
Robinson's observations, while harsh, hardly begin to tell the whole story. His comments were prompted by a desire to see greater voter turnout this November for the presidential election. When that day comes, voter turnout will probably be better in terms of percentage than it is in the so-called off-year elections. Still the percentage of registered voters participating is one that would likely earn a high D or low C in a classroom, which is nothing for us as a society to be proud of.
Then there's the matter of referring to non-presidential election years as "off-year" elections. In the even numbered years, when the president isn't on the ballot, all of our state and county elected officials are chosen, including, but not limited to, county executive, county council, sheriff, governor, state delegates and state senators. By contrast, in the presidential year, the only other folks up for voting are members of Congress and, occasionally, U.S. senators and state and county judges. We call them the off years, but they're when we pick the people who spend our state sales tax, state income tax, county income tax, county real estate tax, tolls and any number of other taxes and fees. That's a lot of money to be spent by people whose election occurs in the non-presidential year, especially when the percentage of voter turnout in those years is sometimes so low in some races, it would be in the very low E range on an academic report card.
The political reality is, voting percentages are low enough, and most of the state and local officeholders represent districts that are so small, it's possible for a well-organized campaign to win simply by swaying a few hundred votes, or even by suppressing voting in certain neighborhoods.
Combine this with another of our great civic shortcomings — namely not knowing the names of many of our representatives, let alone what they stand for and what they do — and we're left with a situation where relatively few people vote, the few who do claim make independent decisions, but sometimes don't know even the names of those who are running. They then pick based on party, though many will deny it. It's a damnable situation because neither party has a monopoly on moronic members, or solid civil servants.
If you are among the people who don't vote — regardless of the reason — rest assured that your opinion doesn't count.
A single vote may not make a difference in the presidential election, or even a legislative subdistrict race, but there have been plenty of times in U.S. history, not to mention recent Harford County history, when elections have hinged on a single vote. Not voting is like not buying a lottery ticket. Doing it may not make much difference in the outcome, but not doing it ensures nothing will come of it.
Moreover, something we sometimes fail to realize as winner-focused Americans, which is a vote for the losing candidate is every bit as valuable as a vote for the winner. The reason is simple. It shows that there is opposition, and a dissenting view. And dissenting views sometimes become prevailing views, if the prevailing views fail to produce results time and again.
Between now and the beginning of November, there's plenty of time to get to know the names and records of those few people on the ballot, a task simplified by the Internet. And between now and November 2014, there's a lot of time to get familiar with those who represent us at the state and county level.
If you've not been doing it, it's time to start taking your civic responsibility seriously. Otherwise, expect to be ignored by the people you had nothing to do with electing or opposing.