Anemic primary turnout must be cause for concern
Though Tuesday’s primary election in the Mahoning Valley produced its fair share of winners and losers, perhaps the biggest defeat of all was socked to the health of participatory democracy.
In a word, voter turnout was disheartening.
How disheartening? In the Mahoning Valley, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters bothered to trek to the polls Tuesday – or during early voting for several weeks leading up to Election Day.
Voter turnout ranged from an unremarkably slender 19 percent in Mahoning County to an emaciated 15.8 percent in Trumbull County to a downright anorexic 11 percent in Columbiana County.
Of course, even though we are disheartened by the low voter participation rate, we are not surprised. Boards of elections directors throughout the Valley had forecast the low turnouts long before that cool and cloudy first Tuesday after the first Monday in May arrived this week.
What’s more, the turnout percent- ages, though even lower than many other odd-year primaries, do come close to those we have grown accustomed to in local elections, particularly in primary elections.
If common sense ruled, however, one might reasonably expect as robust or even more robust participation during off-year elections than those during the even-numbered congressional, state and presidential election years. When duly inspired, Valley residents have proven that they will flock to the polls in relatively large numbers. In last fall’s bitterly contested presidential fray, for example, turnout in Mahoning County soared to a jaw-dropping 71 percent.
Stephanie Penrose, director of the Trumbull County Board of Elections, hit the nail on the head when lamenting her embarrassingly low – but spot-on accurate – prediction of abysmal turnout in that county for Tuesday’s vote.
“This is where your local government operates and where your local tax dollars are spent. These are more important to your life than president and governor, and we get less turnout for the local races,” she told The Vindicator for a front-page primary-election preview story published Sunday.
To be sure, the mayoral, city council and municipal judge races that thousands of responsible residents in the Valley voted on Tuesday directly affect their pocketbooks in taxation and policy decisions, the immediate future course of growth or stagnation in their hometowns and in the demeanor and philosophies of the courtrooms into which they are most likely to be summoned.
Those who choose to go AWOL on Election Day forfeit their right to let their voice be heard. In so doing, they also forfeit their right to legitimately bemoan the governing structure that they allowed others to create for them.
The reasons citizens use to sit out Election Day run the gamut from apathy to laziness. One of the most oft-repeated rationalizations goes something like this: “My vote won’t make a difference.”
Such excuses lack substance. In several city council races in Mahoning and Trumbull counties on Tuesday, the margin between winner and loser was fewer than 100 votes. If turnout had increased by a few measly percentage points, outcomes very well may have been altered.
Collectively, the 2017 primary stands as one in which the vast majority ceded authority to a handful of voters. In the Valley, it was akin to allowing one person in a group of five to decide what is best for the group while the other four sit idly and silently by.
The ongoing divorce of voters from the electoral process is particularly disheartening in light of efforts made in Ohio in recent years to make the civic duty more convenient and more accessible through expanded voter registration opportunities, liberalized early and absentee voting and other initiatives.
Some might argue that even more liberalized mechanisms such as online and universal voting by mail would drive up participation rates. While such methods may warrant study, they also may open the door to greater opportunities for fraud and abuse in the sacred electoral process.
After all, voting today rarely requires more than becoming familiar with the candidates and issues before stepping out a half-hour earlier for work or enjoying a slightly later dinner. That’s a small inconvenience to keep participatory democracy alive and well.