I leafed through the usual junk mail the other day, ready to consign most of the world's hard-copy correspondence with me to the recycling bin. Then, I noticed that one piece of "junk" was my sample primary ballot for the Sept. 14 Maryland primary. I paused.
As someone who cares about public service, government and politics, my initial reaction was: I know who I'm voting for at the top of the ticket, and who cares about the state senators and delegates, county council members, school board candidates and others at the bottom. It then dawned on me that if I didn't care about these potential officeholders or for whom I voted, who would?
In the glittering world of Washington, it's easy to cynically dismiss someone below a member of Congress as just not very important. At the same time, in the shrill, angry world of contemporary American politics, it's easy to smirk that there's not a dime's worth of difference between one pol and another.
The people who make our state laws and craft our education policy have at least as much of an impact on us as whether President Barack Obama signs a major piece of legislation in a Rose Garden ceremony. Moreover, most state and local public servants are hardworking citizens who want to make their communities better. I would be foolish — and disrespectful of their efforts — to ignore them.
Throughout the nation, primary turnout is dismally low, although voter interest in Senate and gubernatorial races has increased this year. Last month, only 15.5 percent of registered voters turned out in Minnesota's primary, and just 23 percent voted in Vermont's primary, although that number was reported to be three times the total for 2008. Maryland's turnout is expected to be around 30 percent, according to U.S. Politics Today.
So, the sample ballot for this month's primary stayed on my kitchen counter. Which is where it should stay for every household that receives one. I read it and intend to study these lower-tier candidates so that I can make an informed choice and vote.
I'm not going to descend to the usual civic preachiness: "We should vote because we're lucky enough to live in a democracy." That's the equivalent of, "clean your plate because children are starving" in some faraway poor country. It's true, but not the only point — and in some ways, beside the point.
Rather, vote out of self-interest, as well as in the public interest. If your county council votes next year to cut funding for parks and you want to complain to those in power that your favorite park is dirtier or open less often, you have a lot more credibility if you chose to study candidates' platforms and you voted for one who pledged to keep our parks pristine. Similarly, none of us may like the way that property taxes are headed, but if you don't at least read what candidates have to say about taxes before they're elected, your future outrage has a flimsier foundation.
So, before Sept. 14 passes and you become one of the majority who didn't vote, check out some of the lower-tier candidates on the web or in newspaper endorsements. Yes, their electronic calls may be annoying, but take a moment to listen to them. Whether you agree with them or not, and whether or not you think they're wise and accomplished, they are making an effort to serve you and the rest of us. We owe them the respect of at least voting. And we also owe ourselves the satisfaction of trying to shape our government and its policies before we grouse about what the legislature, county council or board of education did.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian and longtime journalist, is the author of "Forgive Us Our Debts" and the forthcoming book "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.