EDITORIAL: What, me vote?

YOU PROBABLY KNOW someone who won’t vote November 3, most likely a hardworking, taxpaying, law abiding, nice person who will forget to vote. Well, not exactly forget but, you know, won’t remember where to vote or can’t decide between candidates because, really, nothing gets done no matter who wins.

Almost half of us in Columbia County were that person in the last general election, according to the county Board of Elections. It’s likely to be worse this year if our pattern holds true. Only 46% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2013, the last off-year election. And while the numbers make it sound like we’re slackers, we look pretty good here compared to voters statewide.

In the election last fall only 29% of New York state voters bothered to go to the polls to pick the people who now represent us in the House of Representatives and in state government, where they determine things like how much aid our schools districts receive, how much state income tax we’ll pay and which bridges and frost-heaved roads get fixed. But maybe we should just relax and take pride that as a state we were a smidgen better at casting our ballots than Texans. Yahoo!

The complaint about nothing changes no matter who gets elected is empty-headed nonsense. Change happens only when voters demand it at the polls. And nothing in the political makeup of the Columbia County prevents big changes at the local level. The registration numbers tell the tale.

As of last April Democrats held a slim lead over Republicans in terms of “active” registered voters–a margin of less than 1,000 voters. Add active Conservative Party registered voters to the GOP total and the gap between the headcount of the two major parties in Columbia County is a dead heat. The Independence Party, which got its start when billionaire Ross Perot ran a third-party campaign for president in 1992, is the largest of the minor parties. It’s only half the size of the Democrats or Republicans.

That leaves the pesky No Party voters, those of us who, for reasons we don’t have to declare, express no allegiance to a party but claim our right to vote. In this county, these voters comprise the third largest bloc of voters. There are almost as many of us as there are Republicans. We’re not organized and you won’t see a No Party party platform, nickname or icon (a cloud, perhaps?). But politicians of all stripes lose sleep over how we’ll vote as Election Day nears. Hey, candidates, keep counting those sheep. The ability to entice the contrarian vote can and does sway elections.

In the depths of the most recent recession demonstrators around the country touched a nerve with their expressions of anger at the “1%” who control so much of the wealth while the middle class pays the bills and poor people get less of everything but blame. Now another percentage confronts us. It’s less dramatic but just as disruptive to our way of life. In this county, where citizens have traditionally voted in far larger proportion that other places, will we settle for 46% participation in a general election?

What does it say about our commitment to democracy when fewer than half of Columbia County’s eligible voters exercise their franchise? How much lower must turnout drop before we no longer bother with elections at all?

Elsewhere around the country big money interests bankroll initiatives that undermine the right to vote. States impose absurd ID requirements or other tactics that smack of a return to racist Jim Crow laws. We don’t face those obstacles here. This state does discourage people who wish to run for office and we’re behind on innovations like online voting, but voters can vote if they will only take the time to do it.

If you have questions, check the new Columbia County Board of Elections website, https://sites.google.com/a/columbiacountyny.com/elections/. It’s easy to use and shockingly up-to-date for this county. Or you can call 518 828-3115; you could even drop by the board’s office at 401 State Street, Hudson, where the staff will give you helpful information.

Convincing ourselves or our neighbors to vote shouldn’t depend on guilt and shame. Voting is an act of self interest. Casting our vote won’t necessarily produce the results we want. But each vote is a powerful reminder to our leaders that we voluntarily consent to be governed and can withdraw that consent soon enough by voting for somebody else.

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