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Turning voter apathy into enthusiasm

POSTED: June 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to support photo identification at the polls has stirred in me a sense of frustration. At first, this irritation seemed to be the lingering aftertaste of the legal loss for those without easy access to photo IDs.
Upon further reflection, though, I realized that while a valid contributor, the photo ID issue was not the true, primary source of my unhappiness. I am passionate about helping disenfranchised voters - those who are entitled to vote, want to vote, or attempt to vote, but are deprived from voting or having their votes counted. I have to admit, however, that I am as much or more concerned about "enfranchised" voters, who simply don't vote.
There is a litany of excuses from photo ID carrying, non-voting, registered voters. The reasons are varied, and hardly any of them good. Let's take the first one: "I don't know enough about issues or the candidates to vote." Information is more readily available than ever before. Most folks with photo ID's have easy access to television and radio, and with the Internet, portals for candidate and issue information are simply a click away.
Also, since when does voting equal test-taking? Voting is not a pass/fail system for the voter, but for the candidate. A PhD is not necessary to make a difference or to have an opinion. If you know something about even one person or issue on a ballot, use your voice. If the outcome is not what you would have liked, at least you altered the result by a certain margin, and exercised a right that people in other countries are, literally, dying to have.
The most common excuse though is "my vote doesn't count." This sentiment originates from a number of areas, the Electoral College being one. Let's face it, the presidential elections are the "Rock Stars" of the election universe, theirs are the races that excite most people - and yet, they are complicated mechanisms, not necessarily married to the outcome of the popular vote. We can debate the pros and cons of the Electoral College for years, but when it gets right down to it, the majority of the officials and laws that affect your daily life are completely determined by popular vote.
If that does not seem consequential, ask parents and students of Clayton County what they have learned about the power of local elections. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission 2005 report, only about 59 percent of the Clayton County population is registered to vote. Of that number, only about 50 percent actually voted in 2002. The number voters increased to 80 percent in 2004, a presidential election year. So, in an off year, when most races concern local government, only 30 percent of the population voted. That means that the Clayton County officials elected to office in 2002 actually represented only about a third of the voting age population.
Those elected to office in a presidential year, represented only half of that population. There has been little change since. Is that what we want? Does the dysfunction of a school board and the impending loss of school system accreditation show why voter apathy is dangerous? I suspect it does. Bottom line: Local elections matter.
Which brings me to the other quasi-justification registered non-voters employ: "Politicians are inaccessible and vote based on their own whims or those of lobbyists and big business."
While I cannot state that this is false across the board, I must say that the majority of the elected officials I have met try to be good public servants. A conversation or phone call from one constituent can render even the most skilled lobbyist ineffective. Elected officials are usually easy to find and engage. Most have websites with contact information, and if they don't, you can usually reach them by contacting their office.
Above all, it is crucial to remember that our elected officials work for us. We hire and fire them with our votes. We have the authority to rate their performances, good and bad, and give them feedback. This sort of say in ones own government is an amazing, hard-won right. If you were lucky enough to be born into citizenship, or to acquire it, take ownership of your government. President Lincoln had it right - our government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people." That is, unless we don't vote.

McKinney is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Georgia. 

 

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