Did you feel a little wave of patriotism wash over you recently? A story in Colorado Politics reported on the routine announcement by the El Paso County clerk and recorder that the results of the April 2 local election were now certified. Granted, if you are outside of Colorado Springs, you may well have missed that story. The nice folks up in Denver are getting ready for their own mayor’s election on May 7, and ballots will soon be in the mail to voters in the Mile-High City. All boring and routine, right? It’s not like there was a parade of fire trucks squirting water over the trucks delivering 420,000 ballots, but perhaps there should have been?
Most folks tend to pay more attention to national elections, or the big and sexy races for the Senate or House. Who cares about local stuff? I’ve written before on the importance of elections and have nagged my fellow voters to take the five minutes it takes to fill out a ballot and then to put on the stamp needed for postage (I promised a county clerk that I would not reveal the secret that a ballot, even one with no stamp at all, will still be delivered as a service to voters and to, you know, democracy. Wait, was that out loud?
The certification of an election as free and fair is something we are used to in the United States and in Colorado. Our state leadership (well, some of them) worked very hard to get mail-in ballots sent to everyone they should go to. So really, if you open mail and can check a box, you should have voted, right? Billions around the world don’t have such elections.
So how did it go?
Well, when all was said and done, El Paso County Clerk Sarah Johnson reported that 98,384 ballots were counted, once the final few military votes trickled in. That sounds fairly impressive, almost 100,000 voters took part in an off-, off-, off-year election. Pretty great, huh?
Well, not so much. It seems that turnout (which isn’t even the right word anymore; we should say “turn in.”) was – wait for it – 37.11 %. That means just under 63 % of eligible voters couldn’t be bothered, for a variety of reasons I’m sure, to vote for the future leaders of Colorado Springs. We’ll see if Denver does better next month.
So low turnout is a bad thing, right? I mostly think so. But there is an interesting theory in political science that low turnouts are actually not a bad thing. Why? Well, it’s hard to put this gently, but the theory says that uninformed folks don’t usually vote, and it’s better to have a smaller number of informed voters choosing our leadership than it does to have the uninformed folks taking part, and casting, well, uninformed votes.
It takes effort, say the adherents of this idea, to become educated and we really don’t want people picking leaders because they like the candidates’ name, or they have an R or a D or a L or a G after their names. And, as I glance around to make sure no one is about to jump me, that isn’t a completely wrong idea, maybe?
Thomas Jefferson — hardly a slacker on democracy — once wrote that a nation that expects to remain ignorant and free, is doomed. Jefferson also noted, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Yet most of the founding generation did not believe in universal voting; certainly not for women, minorities, and others. And for those outraged by that observation, times change. Chances are you’d have agreed with that position had you been raised in that era.
So, we need educated (note that this does not really refer only to “traditional” definitions of “school.” Self-education is vital) voters who care enough to become informed. Could it be argued that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy? If you are interested in politics and governance, you are far more likely to keep yourself up to date on the key issues. Maybe it’s a good thing that your neighbor, you know the one I’m talking about, didn’t vote, because he/she would vote out of ignorance and might cast a dangerous vote? Just maybe?
Maybe I’ve been wrong this entire time (Ed: uh oh), and I should not have encouraged people to vote? Seems a rather Machiavellian view of human nature, but gosh, 37%? It’s just possible I don’t have the right answer?
Nah … um … uh oh.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.