by Barry Edelson
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Use Your Vote or Lose It

When we don't vote, we disenfranchise ourselves


On April 8, the Huntington Public Library held a vote on its annual budget of $8.8 million. There are 34,000 residents in the Huntington library district, the vast majority of whom are adults of voting age. The number of votes cast on April 8 was a mere 524. Considering that an average of about 1,000 patrons pass through the library's doors each day, it is likely that many people who were actually in the library that day and walked right by the polling place didn't even bother to vote. Most residents probably didn't even know there was a vote. Holding the library election all by itself on a seemingly random day in April, instead of at the same time as the school budget vote, as in many other districts, almost guaranteed a low turnout. Even so, considering that the library has 28,000 active patrons with library cards, 524 votes is pathetic.

Not that the school district fared much better. By comparison, the nearly 2,000 people who got themselves to the polls for the school budget vote on May 20 seem like a veritable throng, but the sad fact is that they represent fewer than 10 percent of the voting-age population of the school district. Even a large majority of those with the greatest vested interest in the outcome — parents with kids currently in school — didn't cast a ballot. Sadly, this is pretty typical across Long Island and the rest of the state.

So the question for my fellow citizens is this: If we don't vote, in what way exactly are we living in a democracy? I am reminded of the quote, generally attributed to Mark Twain, that a person who does not read great books has no advantage over the person who cannot read them. Likewise, a person who lives in America but does not exercise the right to vote has no advantage over the person who lives in an undemocratic part of the world where voting is simply not an option. Voting on our school or library budget is one of the only forms of direct democracy open to us. In almost every other respect, our form of government is republican, i.e., our elected representatives make all the decisions for us. If the percentage of people who vote falls somewhere between the number who believe humans are descended from space aliens and the number who have a positive opinion of Congress, then why are we bothering to hold these elections at all? This is not an argument in favor of disenfranchising anyone, merely an acknowledgement of the reality that the voters have already disenfranchised themselves.

It costs thousands of dollars to hold a public vote. Districts have to rent voting machines, print ballots, generate poll lists, disseminate information, publish legal notices in the newspaper, pay poll workers, and so on. If nobody cares, then why doesn't New York just allow library and school boards to adopt a budget the way the town, county, state and federal governments do? We don't get to vote for any of those spending plans. If we don't like what's going on in Albany or Washington, our recourse is to vote out our representatives every other November. Maybe giving the power of the purse to the library board and the school board, and holding elections for trustees on Election Day, would make voting for those bodies a little more interesting and meaningful. Then again, maybe turnout would be lousy then, too. But at least we wouldn't have to spend taxpayer money on this annual charade.


Originally printed as a letter to the editor of The Long Islander, May 29, 2014


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