WITH COLUMBIA approaching its first fall election on Nov. 5, it’s worth an early word of encouragement to voters to commit now to going to the polls to choose a mayor and three council members to help lead the city over the next four years.
Typically, we would wait until several days prior to an election to urge voters to go cast their ballots. But given the change in the timing of the election and the fact that a majority of the seats on the seven-member council are up for grabs, an early reminder is warranted.
The Nov. 5 date is a significant change for Columbia, where municipal elections have been held in the spring since at least the 1950s. City Council changed the date last year from April of even years to November of odd years in hopes of drawing more voters to the polls.
In the past, very few of the city’s eligible registered voters turned out to exercise their civic duty. Typically, only about 15 percent to 20 percent of Columbia’s voters participated, meaning the few determined who would govern the many.
That’s a sad state of affairs considering that no government is closer and more influential in the lives of citizens day in and day out than city government. It’s an indictment of candidates’ inability to get people excited and engaged as well as voters’ apathy and apparent lack of concern about who will lead them or, for that matter, where they are being led.
Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that the elections were held at a very inopportune time. The April elections often collided with spring break and Holy Week. After years of observing citizens voting their lack of interest in city politics with their absence from the polls, City Council finally decided to hold the elections during a time when people expect to vote — November.
The Nov. 5 ballot has been set for several weeks now: Mayor Steve Benjamin is being challenged by Columbia Councilman Moe Baddourah and Larry Sypolt, a newcomer. In the three council races, District 1 incumbent Sam Davis faces businessman Bruce Trezevant; District 4 incumbent Leona Plaugh faces real estate developer Todd Walter; and at-large incumbent Tameika Isaac Devine, who is seeking a fourth term, faces businessman Tommy Burkett. In addition, there is a countywide referendum asking voters to approve the Richland Library’s request to borrow $59 million to improve the library system.
Will holding city elections in November boost turnout as anticipated? We feel certain it will over time; we hope so even in the short term.
With fewer distractions, there is no reason for Columbia voters not to engage the process that will determine the members of the local governing body that can raise taxes and fees, spend public money by the millions, enact curfews and other local laws and adopt zoning ordinances dictating how property can be used.
Nov. 5 should be the beginning of the end of 15 percent voter turnout. Of course, that’s up to voters, just as it is up to them to decide who will lead city government.