It is not difficult to lose faith in the power of voting. Gerrymandering, dark money campaign contributions and voter suppression efforts — the last even endorsed by the current U.S. president, who falsely claims widespread voter fraud in 2016 — have done their share to shake faith in democracy in this country. It’s a big reason why turnout at the polls has been miserably low all over the United States and why U.S. voter turnout lags most of its democratic and developed peers around the world.
But if anyone needs to be reminded that every vote counts — that a handful of votes can turn an election — they need only look to last week’s Maryland primary where, after the dust settled, there are at least three races that came down to the slimmest of margins. In Baltimore County, former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. has been declared the Democratic nominee for county executive — pending the recount requested by state Sen. Jim Brochin whom he bested by nine — count them, nine — votes in a contest where more than 84,000 votes were cast. In Montgomery County, the Democratic county executive primary was decided in similar squeaker fashion with Councilman Marc Elrich besting businessman David Blair by 80 votes, which is roughly 0.06 percent of the 129,337 votes recorded.
But neither can hold a candle to the council race in Howard County where the final tally in the District 1 Democratic primary had Councilman Jon Weinstein with 3,171 votes and challenger Elizabeth “Liz” Walsh with 3,173. That’s a stunning two-vote margin. Families of four hold decisions about where to go out to dinner with bigger margins of victory than that. Had one Walsh supporter simply changed his or her mind in the booth last Tuesday and gone for the incumbent, it would have been a tie.
The lesson here is clear: Every vote counts. For all the powerless feeling that may have beset a state that voted big for Hillary Clinton in 2016 only to watch Donald Trump sworn in as president despite his losing the popular vote nationwide by millions, decision-making still ultimately rests in the hands of those who cast ballots. Historically, off-year election primaries record the lowest voter turnout of all, but there is also reason to hope. There was a slight uptick in voter turnout this year — 24 percent of Maryland’s registered voters cast ballots compared to 22 percent four years earlier.
Voting is a sacred duty — that’s a phrase thrown around in election years — but how many Americans take that obligation seriously? Low turnout is a national disgrace, an insult to those who have fought and died defending our freedom far worse than any concern about posture when the national anthem is sung. Is it a form of protest? Are there too many barriers to voting? Is it a lack of investment in local government? Or have we simply become too lazy and indifferent?
Maryland has taken some steps in recent years to try to make voting more accessible. Early voting has proven helpful (although whether it brings in new voters or simply conveniences those who would have voted on Election Day anyway isn’t clear). Yet the state has also been slow to institute other reforms. Gerrymandering has likely discouraged turnout, and the General Assembly appears unwilling to take serious action on that front. Democrats prefer a system that favors them — much as Republicans do in Red States. The state’s closed primaries automatically exclude about 772,000 voters from most contests. And campaign finance reform efforts haven’t exactly loosened the grip of special interests — though a burgeoning public financing effort shows promise.
But here’s something those three-quarters of Maryland’s registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot in the primary ought to consider: Do you care about taxes? The funding of schools? The health of the environment? The future of transportation? The economy? Poverty? Health care? Elections have impact on all those things — and not just when you pick a president. Governors, state lawmakers, county executives and council members all make decisions that can spell big consequences in your neighborhood.
Granted, this wasn’t exactly a banner year for those who conduct Maryland’s elections. The Motor Vehicle Administration’s mishandling of voter registration data for more than 83,000 individuals was more than a “glitch,” it was yet another example of voter discouragement, if an unintentional one. That can’t be allowed to happen again. But poor turnout isn’t just about the failures of government, it’s about the failures of citizens to take responsibility for their future. Votes matter. There’s just no ignoring it.