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Local government is most trusted, but still…


Municipal elections are coming up in Indiana, and it’s hard not to be cynical about them.

In my city of Fort Wayne, participation in odd-year balloting has been plummeting. In 2003, just above 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. In 2011, it was only 26.21 percent, and in 2015 it was 22.49 percent. It might well sink to a new low of 20 percent this year. It’s much the same in most other Hoosier cities. Statewide, only 13 percent voted in this year’s primaries.

And it’s puzzling why this should be so.

Surely it can’t be because residents don’t think their votes matter. They have the least control over the federal government, yet vote in much greater (though still pathetic) numbers for president and Congress. Decisions by local leaders affect how we live every day of our lives, so why are we so unconcerned about who they are?

It isn’t that not enough people aren’t eligible to vote. Considering that in the beginning only white male property owners over 21 could vote, we’ve come about as close to universal suffrage as we should be, unless you really want to make the case that children, non-citizens and felons in prison should have a say in things.

And, despite complaints to the contrary, is ballot access really that much of an issue? We could make some improvements – same-day registration, no; but, several days of voting instead of a 12-hour window, yes. But the truth is that anybody who wants to vote can and will find the time and a way.

So, if you don’t vote, it’s because you don’t want to, either because you don’t see the point, or, more likely, because it doesn’t even occur to you.

University of Chicago professor Eric Oliver, noting similar local-election voting declines in America’s biggest cities, offers a plausible explanation: Barring a scandal or major initiative, local politics mostly functions in an “equilibrium state” that “isn’t conducive to generating voter interest.” Interestingly, says Governing magazine, although Americans aren’t apt to vote in municipal elections, “Gallup surveys indicate they trust local government more than the state or federal levels.”

That trust is more than “interesting,” isn’t it? It could be, as the pundits like to say, dispositive.

Imagine we’re on an ocean liner – oh, the Titanic, say. It’s like the old joke about the guy explaining why he doesn’t fix the hole in his roof – when it’s raining, he can’t, and when it’s not raining, he doesn’t have to. As long as the ship is sailing along smoothly, we don’t worry about it. Our suites are comfortable, we’re having a good time, and we trust the captain and crew to keep it that way.

And when the iceberg looms, it’s too late to worry about it. “Oops, guess we shouldn’t have trusted them after all.” No point in raising an objection at that juncture.

I have no great wisdom to impart, just the obvious point that we are more than passengers on this particular ship. If we believe in the principles of a federal republic, and accept the responsibilities that come with freedom, we are also owners of the line.

Which means that if we just sail blithely along, ignoring the lack of lifeboats though their absence is obvious, we don’t have the right to complain when we find ourselves in freezing water. If the mayor sees that only 51 percent of 20 percent elected him, he is less likely to care about the wishes of his constituents. If the participation rate were to jump to 50 or 60 percent, he might steer more carefully.

Please note that I am not asking you to distract the crew and annoy fellow passengers with irresponsible complaints and inane observations if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

In other words, if you choose to be uninformed about the issues, do us all a favor and stay away from the polls on election day.

(Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.)