Bolton: City elections: The few decide for the many

Associate EditorMarch 30, 2012 

BEAUTIFUL weather, daylight-saving time and visions of the beach dancing in many heads can mean only one thing in the city of Columbia.

No, not spring break, although many school districts will be out next week, and folks will be headed out of town.

No, not Easter, although Christians across the globe rightly will be focused on Holy Week and upcoming Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday worship services and programs.

Nope, with people sufficiently engrossed in other things, this can only mean that it’s time for another Columbia City Council election. Another opportunity for a pitiful display of civic duty as the capital city’s voters take a powder on voting for the body that can raise taxes and fees, spend public money by the millions, enact curfews and other local laws, adopt zoning ordinances dictating how property can be used and sell city-owned property for use as a Walmart.

Of course, anyone planning to be out of town surely will have voted absentee or will at least wait until they vote on Tuesday before leaving, right?

Unfortunately, not. History says they will duck out with little remorse. To many, voting — at least in municipal elections — is secondary. It’s sad, but it’s true.

No matter the stakes, many people with kids — and many without — will have skipped town for spring break and other getaways by 7 a.m. Tuesday, when polls open. Even worse, many who stay close to home have planting and watering and frolicking in the sun on their agenda — or even just a regular day at work — rather than choosing the newest additions to City Council.

The only thing worse than distracted and disinterested voters’ refusal to turn out in April municipal elections is state and local leaders’ refusal to hold these elections in November, at the time of the general election, when more people vote. Why hold elections at a time when we know folks aren’t going to turn out?

As always, this year’s election turnout is expected to be dismal, despite the fact that we have a very interesting race for the at-large seat being vacated by Daniel Rickenmann (Joseph Azar, Robert Bolchoz and Cameron Runyan are challenging for that seat). The race to replace Councilwoman Belinda Gergel in District 3 should be equally interesting, as Moe Baddourah, Daniel Coble and Jennifer Isgett compete for the position.

Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman should be re-elected easily over Nammu Muhammad in District 2. But you can believe Mr. Newman won’t breath easy until the polls are closed and the votes are tabulated. With turnout so poor at times, you can never predict exactly what might happen. Frankly, if he had even a slightly more formidable candidate, he’d be in for a real fight.

In the 2010 special election for the District 2 seat, fewer than 10 percent of voters turned out to cast ballots in both the initial election and a runoff two weeks later. The fact that it was a hotly contested race — there were eight candidates in contention — did little to inspire the electorate.

What does it all mean? More often than not, a minority of voters determines who will serve on Columbia City Council.

The 2010 city elections, which included highly competitive and engaging races for mayor and a couple of council seats, drew the highest voter turnout in recent memory at 27 percent in the initial round of voting; just more than 17,000 of the city’s roughly 63,000 registered voters cast ballots. Participation climbed to 31 percent — nearly 20,000 voted — during the runoff.

But it’s disheartening that even with the increased engagement, more than two-thirds of registered voters sat at home and allowed the minority to decide.

Typically, about 15 percent to 20 percent of Columbia’s voters actually participate.

In the 2006 election, which included a mayoral race, 22 percent of the city’s 57,000 registered voters — more than 13,000 people — cast ballots. In 2002, only about 19 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In 2000, only 4,814, or 9 percent, of Columbia’s registered voters cast ballots. In the 1998 elections, which also included a mayoral contest, there was a 17 percent turnout.

I could easily add to the list above of reasons Columbia voters need to turn out on Tuesday and cast their ballots: The council decides which streets get beautified and which neighborhoods get revamped. Its members hire and fire the city manager, who hires and fires the police chief, the finance director and all other department heads. With city manager Steve Gantt likely to retire soon, the council will decide who the next day-to-day administrator will be. Or better still, the council could — and should — decide to give city voters an opportunity to decide in November whether to elect an empowered, full-time mayor instead of hiring a new unelected, unaccountable manager to run the city.

There is no level of government closer and more influential in the lives of citizens day in and day out than city government. Yet the overwhelming majority of registered voters in Columbia couldn’t care less. They simply don’t care about who will lead them or, for that matter, where they are being led.

At least that’s the unsettling message voters’ absence from the polls sends.

And history suggests that even when it’s brought to their attention, the majority remain on the sidelines. Or in their gardens. Or at the beach. Or simply out of touch.

They all deserve the government they get.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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