Too much of any good thing is bad, and that includes democracy.
I write that because very low turnout is becoming the norm in school elections, a level of government where voters can have a lot of influence. I’m wondering if that’s happening because voters are being asked to go to the polls so often, and make so many choices, and focus so much of their attention on presidential races where, frankly, they don’t have much of a say.
In the Little Rock School District, for example, the incumbent, Diane Curry, may find herself in a runoff after falling two votes short of a majority, depending on what happens with overseas ballots. Curry received 217 votes, while the runner-up received 193 and the third place finisher had 25.
Curry’s zone is home to 13,522 registered voters, so turnout was 3.2 percent. If she is elected without a runoff, it will be with 1.6 percent of her zone’s registered voters. Then she’ll make decisions regarding hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds that come, in part, from the pockets of the other 98.4 percent.
I’m not wagging my finger at voters in Little Rock. A year ago and new to a city, I walked into a voting booth during a school board election but didn’t choose a candidate because I didn’t know one from the other.
Studies have demonstrated a phenomenon known as the wisdom of the crowds – that a random collection of people often will come up with the correct answer to a question. It’s the reason that "Ask the audience" was the most effective lifeline on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
That means it’s not necessary to have 100 percent turnout, as occurred in, say, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We just need a decent-sized, diverse, cross-section of people somewhere north of 3.2 percent because very low numbers in an election can be manipulated and skewed. There’s a reason, after all, why all these sales tax hikes and millage increases are being requested in special elections at weird times. It’s easier to get a few friendly voters to the polls in February than it is to try to win over the less engaged populace in November.
Solutions? Maybe start by having fewer elections in order to make them special again. Voters are being asked to go to the polls so often that, instead of elections being the Olympics, they are just another swimming meet somewhere. One week prior to the school board vote, Little Rock residents were asked to decide on a property tax to pay for streets and drainage. Turnout was 5.3 percent. That followed the May primary elections (statewide turnout, 22 percent) and a local March election about the library system that drew 4.6 percent. The November elections are still to come.
That’s a lot of trips to the ballot box about issues that don’t interest a lot of people.
Meanwhile, voters are asked to fill more offices than they can realistically monitor. They elect officials at five levels of government: federal, state, county, city, and school board. They elect positions in all three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Many of these are purely bureaucratic administrators with specific duties – county collector, circuit clerk, state auditor – and should be appointed.
Do we in Arkansas have too much democracy? At the very least, we have one where the focus is wrong. The presidential race, and its billions of dollars, sucks so much air out of the voting booth that there’s little left for the state and local races where individual voters can make more of a difference. Mitt Romney will win Arkansas, and besides, if you and I are not able to write a $40,000 campaign check, neither he nor President Obama will know who we are. But state legislators and school board members can be influenced by us and are interested in what we have to say.
First, however, we have to be interested in them.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org