by John Odum
There are a lot of ways you can judge the health of a democracy. One of them–the simplest and most straightforward one–is to look at citizen participation. Turnout can be considered a measure of voter engagement, voter interest, and–I would argue–voter’s sense of futility. A certain percentage of those who don’t vote are not necessarily staying home due to apathy, but from a sense that their vote doesn’t matter.
Apathy is a real thing, but it’s just too easy to write off non-voters to inertia, and a lazy unwillingness to engage. While apathy is something we obviously need to address, it’s all too common for individuals to approach the problem from a sense of superiority (I vote, what’s your problem?). Condescension makes a blunt tool for a precision job.
Looking at the numbers in Montpelier compared to the state and national numbers is interesting. In the 2016 General Election, Montpelier’s turnout (percentage of registered voters) was 67.76 percent. Comparing that to the statewide average (67.95 percent) makes us look quite, well, average. We can take heart in the fact that our checklist was a bit bloated at the time (we have since removed about 1,200 voters that likely do not live here any more from “active” to “challenged” status–the first step to purging them completely). What this means is that our true turnout was likely higher. Nevertheless, we aren’t blowing away our fellow Vermonters with our turnout rate, that’s for sure.
Looking at the rest of the country, we can feel quite good about ourselves. Nationally, turnout was 60.2 percent. So yay us. While that puts us well ahead of Texas; however (at 51.6 percent), Minnesota leaves us in the dust (74.8 percent)
These comparative numbers have a lot of value. You can compare similar communities and consider what procedural or cultural forces are creating any voting percentage gap and the lower turnout community may be able to learn from the higher one. Maybe Texas can learn a thing or two from us, but we could learn a thing or two from Minnesota.
But looking at those numbers in an absolute sense, that’s 22 percent of eligible Montpelierites just not participating–and the numbers for primary and annual city meeting elections are even lower, sometimes far lower.
So how do we fix it?
There’s no magic answer, and all the different moving parts have a role to play, including constituent groups, political campaigns, and even the news media. But we as individuals have a role too, and that brings me back to my first point.
We can berate and shame the non-voter. That might increase turnout by a small amount, sure. But if we recognize that many of our neighbors who don’t vote are staying home because they have become jaded and cynical, that’s a perspective even the most committed and responsible voter can probably empathize with, so why not empathize? Why not embrace that common ground?
If we can demonstrate to non-voters that our vote does matter (and that’s not a difficult thing to do at all when you’re talking about local elections) we’ll be showing them that theirs does too. This is harder work that berating, and for some probably less satisfying. But we must keep our eyes on the prize in the struggle for maximum democracy
And I’m willing to bet that the adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar applies.
John Odom is the city clerk of Montpelier