Three challengers won seats last week on the Columbus City Council, changing the makeup of elected government with nearly half of the council turning over.
Democrats Tom Dell and Elaine Wagner and Republican Laurie Booher won for various reasons, but shared one common trait in campaigning hard: meeting voters and engaging them.
Columbus residents as a whole did not make civic responsibility a similar priority. In fact, about 84 percent of all registered voters did not cast a ballot; only 5,132 of 31,216 registered voters made the commitment to vote.
The turnout was the lowest since the May 2007 primary, when a paltry 6.6 percent of registered voters participated in an election which featured just two contested races among both parties combined.
A lack of contested races Nov. 3 likely also played a factor in this election, as only the District 1, 2 and at-large races had multiple candidates.
But that shouldn’t be an excuse for not voting.
Everyone gets to vote for the city council at-large race, and many had the opportunity to vote for District 1 or 2 candidates. Considering that city council controls the purse strings of city government, and the council will work with — but also represent a check on — Mayor-elect Jim Lienhoop, more voters should have cared enough to take a few minutes to vote.
The excuse “my vote doesn’t matter” doesn’t wash. Every vote counts. Booher won a council seat by 61 votes. Democrats won two seats on the council for the first time in more than 20 years.
Unfortunately, voter apathy is common — both nationally and locally. City and county elections struggle to attract even 30 percent of registered voters. This year’s primary, which featured many contested Republican races, drew about 25 percent of registered voters. Typically only presidential election years draw a sizable turnout, and those are once every four years. That’s not good enough.
Low voter turnout is a community problem that needs community solutions.
Bartholomew County took a step in the right direction when it approved use of voting centers beginning this spring. They allow registered voters to cast ballots at any voting center, not just the assigned specific precinct. Coupled with early voting, more options equate to more convenience.
But based on the voter turnout, an easier process doesn’t ensure more voters. That means the problem is more complex and will require solutions that impact all ages of voters — teens through senior citizens.
The responsibility for increasing voter turnout falls on many groups. For example:
- Parents, who can instill that responsibility in their children.
- Schools, which can educate about the importance of what voting means.
- Young professionals, who are looking for a way to be engaged in their community.
- Community groups, which thankfully address needs such as hunger, poverty and education, but could play another role by addressing civic engagement.
- Service clubs and other organizations, which have and can sponsor voter forums or debates.
- Political parties, which can and should field full slates of viable candidates.
Wherever you live, residents have the right to have a say about what is happening in their community. One way to do that is by voting — supporting candidates who you feel will best represent your beliefs and help the community the most.
Too few residents in Columbus and Bartholomew County exercise that right. It would be easy to say not enough people care and that’s just the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a choice and our community can choose to do better.