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Low voter turnout means a government chosen by the few [Commentary]

Often in the aftermath of an election, a thought, altered slightly and repeated by a slew of philosophers and social commentators, often pops into my mind: In a democracy, we get the government we deserve (sometimes followed by... and we deserve the government we get).

In my mind, anemic voter participation goes hand-in-hand with lackluster governance and a brand of governance that is dominated by people with the financial means to make large campaign contributions, be they to individual candidates or in support of specific issues.

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I'm not about to be critical of the people making the donations, or suggest they be limited. Regardless of the governmental system, money will always find a way to influence power, so we're best off in a system where we generally know where the money attempting to influence power is coming from. Court decisions in recent years that allow the people doing certain kinds of political spending to hide corporate briar patches, in my mind, pose a threat to the health of the Republic, but that's a subject for another day.

Large scale campaign spending wouldn't amount to much at all if there were such a thing in modern times as large scale voter participation.

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The level of voter participation in the Maryland primary election, that came to a climax Tuesday unnoticed by 75 percent of the electorate and an even larger portion of the general population, is a case in point. The numbers look like this: With a population of right around 250,000, Harford County had just about 160,000 registered voters eligible to participate in the round of voting that drew to a close at 8 p.m. June 24. That leaves 90,000 people unregistered and ineligible, but a large portion of those folks are presumably too young to vote. About 38,000 local young people are enrolled in public schools, a few thousand more in private schools and, presumably, a few thousand more too young for school.

Registration on the part of U.S. citizens 18 and older was given a substantial boost by the passage of what's known as the motor-voter law, that essentially combines voter registration with drivers license acquisition. Still, it would seem there are a few thousand people who are of age, and otherwise qualified, who have managed to not be eligible to vote.

For the sake of this discussion, however, let's presume the 160,000 figure includes everyone 18 and older who is a citizen and a resident of the county, and not precluded from voting by some sort of criminal conviction. Of that total, just about 120,000, or three quarters, didn't vote.

Which means a significant part of the future leadership of Harford County was decided by 40,000 people, or about 16 percent of the population.

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Now, if there were a proposal that the U.S. be run by a ruling elite or single party consisting of 16 percent of the population, I'd like to think no one would sit still for it. Then again, it would be just like what happens now: a few people vote and a lot of complaining about who ends up being voted into office ensues.

As an aside, my belief that strong voter turnout has the capacity to counteract large campaign contributions is based on the reality that, because so few people vote, and they are so easy to identify, the cost of getting messages to that select few is relatively low.

In Harford County's in-district council races, the total number of people voting should have been in the range of 26,600 people. A quarter of that very general total, however, is in the range of 6,650. Divide that among the two major parties and a smattering other parties, and the number of votes it takes to win a race is reduced to substantially less than 2,000 votes. Winning candidates in contested council primaries won with vote totals of between 804 and 2,940, with most winning totals ranging from 1,000 to 2,000.

Voter registration is a matter of public record and anyone can walk into the elections office, pay the fee and get a list of all the registered voters who voted in the last primary. Then, it's just a matter of targeting these few folks with carefully tailored campaign messages. When you only need to convince 2,000 to 3,000 people living in a relatively small area to buy what you're selling, the advertising costs are relatively low. Bring the total needed to win to what it should be, namely somewhere in the range of the total number of votes cast per district, and the burden on the candidates increases.

Curiously, one excuse offered for the paltry voter turnout this time around was the scheduling of the primary in late June. Granted, state and federal elections in this country are usually autumnal events, and summer vacation season was just getting started. Then again, this year's primary included an extended early voting period, which really should have silenced any complaints about convenience.

More importantly, the primary election was scheduled just 10 days before the 238th anniversary of the founding of our democratic republic. I'm going to guess a lot more than 40,000 people of voting age living in Harford County will find time this Fourth of July to take in a fireworks display, parade or picnic.

It's unfortunate so many of them didn't bother to take part in a more meaningful tribute to the founding event by voting on the 24th of June.

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