School vote: Resounding yes from precious few
There are almost 30,000 registered voters in the city of Schenectady.
But only 3.7 percent of them weighed in on the school district’s $70 million renovation plan Tuesday night. About 73.6 percent of those voters cast yes ballots.
That looks like a resounding level of support, until you consider the fact that a tiny sliver of the electorate determined the outcome. When hardly anybody bothers to vote, do election results really have any meaning?
I don’t mean to pick on the Schenectady City School District.
Turnout for local elections tends to be low, and I suspect it’s even lower when the vote is held in the spring, rather than November, when people typically vote. Sadly, there’s nothing all that noteworthy about Tuesday’s vote turnout.
In February, 144 voters in Glenville Fire District 2 approved a $2.7 million addition and renovation project at the Alplaus Firehouse, while 39 voted against it. About 12 percent of the district’s eligible voters opted to cast ballots.
Turnout was also low for village elections last week.
In Middleburgh, just 32 people cast ballots. In Fonda, trustees Walter Boyd and Robert Galusha were re-elected with 12 and 10 votes, respectively. In Fultonville, 53 people voted.
These are small communities, and it’s worth noting that turnout was a bit higher in villages with contested elections. But in a country where fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters headed to the polls for the 2012 presidential election, is it really so surprising that such low percentages of people turn out to vote on school building projects or village trustees or firehouses?
I love voting and I’m always telling people they should vote.
But I still find it difficult to get to the polls to vote on issues and races that strike me as unimportant and unexciting — though perhaps these elections aren’t quite as unimportant and unexciting as they seem.
The city school district’s renovation project is a major undertaking — one that will be funded by the state, rather than city residents, which might explain the tepid turnout. Even smaller projects, such as the Alplaus firehouse, cost a fair amount of money.
One of the great things about living in a democracy is that you have a voice in how your country is run.
But low voter turnout makes a mockery of the entire process.
And while some have tried to address the problem by making it easier to vote — by promoting reforms such as an early voting period — I doubt much of anything can be done to get people excited about a noncontroversial firehouse referendum, or an uncontested village trustee race.
Last November, Albany voters had the opportunity to elect the first new mayor in two decades, and also fill vital Common Council
seats and city positions. In a city with about 97,000 people, fewer than 16,000 cast ballots. That’s pretty dismal. In Schenectady’s last competitive mayoral race, in 2011, only about 29 percent of registered voters voted.
When I ask nonvoters why they don’t vote, they often express a distaste for politicians and politics itself.
They say that no matter how they vote, nothing ever changes, and accuse both parties of being corrupt and out of touch. These criticisms aren’t wrong, exactly. But if you want to change the system, you have to get off the sidelines. When it comes to civic engagement, voting is the bare minimum of what you can do.
I’m willing to cut voters some slack, though, when the ballot is unusually dull.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.