Editorials

Do us a favor: Don’t vote

By Mark Washburn - Contributing Editor, Observer editorial board

Why do we nag people to do their “civic duty”?
Why do we nag people to do their “civic duty”? dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

No more nagging. Please. Consider the consequences.

As every Election Day approaches, you get it from the most well-intentioned quarters: Do your civic duty. Bop out and vote.

Then there is the vote-shaming sequel: much tut-tutting and what-are-we-coming-to because of low turnout.

About 20 percent of eligible voters turned out for last Tuesday’s vote in Mecklenburg, a strong number for an off-year election with no national offices in play. Still, some wonder what has become of the no-show 80 percent, the missing majority.

I can tell you exactly what they were doing. They were answering the highest call of the machinery of democracy, staying out of the way of something important.

Through motor-voter laws and other expedients, registering to vote has almost never been easier. Our voter rolls are swollen with people who, if they had to lift a finger to qualify, might not bother with registering.

They include the civic indifferent, the transient, the apolitical, the apathetic. They’re like the people who sign up for the credit card but never charge anything.

They do us a great service by not cluttering the voting booth.

Left unsaid by the cheerleaders of Election Day is the homework attached to the assignment. It’s not as simple as just go vote; there are candidates to study, issues to weigh, referendums to examine and sometimes races to decide in which they are not stakeholders.

Rooted in antiquity are races that most voters, even the studious, aren’t qualified to judge. Soil commissioner? Who hasn’t hit one like that with a thud.

Judges, too, are elected. In olden days, when court circuits were smaller, it was possible to know the candidates. But in big urban counties these days, they are rarely well-known by the broad electorate. Their selection is likely a result of thousands of random ballot pokes by citizens thinking they’re doing their duty but in fact are guilty of VWI – Voting While Ignorant.

Sometimes they may base their selections on vague stimuli. In 2008, veteran Mecklenburg Judge Ben Thalheimer was beaten by a challenger who was angered in part by Thalheimer’s ruling in his contentious divorce.

Though he had no judicial experience, the millionaire grandson of the Belk department stores founder had instant name recognition and connected with a majority of voters in the race, which attracted huge turnout because of the presidential choice at the top of the ballot.

Two years later, Bill Belk resigned after a rocky reign and was banned from the bench when the N.C. Supreme Court ruled he violated the judicial code by serving on a paid board of directors while a judge.

Baby Boomers still make up a huge percentage of the active electorate. They came of age in the political storms of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Theirs was the activist generation that obtained the vote at 18 and won a social revolution at the polls.

They still decide policy. It is no secret that the elders of our tribe are the ones who vote in greatest numbers.

An analysis of primary voting in September by Observer political writer Jim Morrill revealed that voters over age 40 cast 82 percent of the ballots. One out of three voters was older than 64. Voters under 25 cast only 2 percent of Mecklenburg ballots.

One hopes that as those younger people mature they will join in the decision-making in greater numbers, but for now they choose in overwhelming numbers to opt out.

Each ballot cast Tuesday had unseen – but not unmeasured – weight. Eighty percent of the electorate had ceded to the 20 percent their proxy. Those in the 20 percent had made the determined effort to go to the polls early or even in the rain on Election Day to set our course.

So quit nagging grown people to go vote. Nag them, if you must, to study the pantheon of candidates and issues, but don’t pretend that they are performing some sacred duty just by showing up at the polls.

You’re encouraging VWI, and that’s no way to steer the democracy.

Washburn: mwashburn76@gmail.com.

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