VOICES: Democracy may be in trouble and it has nothing to do with Washington

Voters wait in line Tuesday at the Central Christian Church on Forrer Blvd in Kettering. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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Voters wait in line Tuesday at the Central Christian Church on Forrer Blvd in Kettering. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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I realize we live in a world of hyperbole, where, in some quarters, the precise meaning of words means little more than a bent penny. So as I listened to the latest “democracy is in danger” chant from the pundits on both sides, I wondered — is it really?

I’m beginning to think yes, and it has nothing to do with what’s going on in Washington.

It has everything to do with local community apathy.

We are an apathetic lot when it comes to the workings of our local governments. Sure, we care about safety, whether the trash gets picked on time, and whether someone can force that annoying neighbor to cut his overgrown grass or stop playing the music so loud.

So why don’t we care about who we elect? Why don’t more of us participate?

In all cases, local turnout in nonpresidential election years is abysmal. Figures from boards of elections in Montgomery, Butler and Clark counties in 2019, the most recent off-year election, all told the same sad tale.

Ray Marcano
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Ray Marcano

In Montgomery County, just 74,285 of 356,568 registered voters — barely 1 in 5 people — made decisions on levies, judgeships, council members and the like. In Clark County, just 18.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Hamilton County did better, but with a still underrepresented 29% of voters going to the polls.

You can scroll through precinct-level data and find areas in which 10% or fewer registered voters bothered to cast ballots. That’s an abdication of our duties as citizens.

Contrast that to 2020, which set a national record for turnout during the presidential election. In all three counties, roughly 73% of voters turned out.

Kettering Councilman Bruce Duke and his wife, Janice, have been in a self-quarantine situation for the past two weeks after being exposed to a person who tested positive tested for the coronavirus.
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Kettering Councilman Bruce Duke and his wife, Janice, have been in a self-quarantine situation for the past two weeks after being exposed to a person who tested positive tested for the coronavirus.

“I am convinced more than ever that the backbone of our democracy rests on citizens participating in government at the local level,” said Bruce Duke, who has spent 36 years on the Kettering city council. “Democracy will not collapse from external forces but sadly, could eventually die through benign neglect of our citizens to be involved with their government.”

Joanne Rau, 2013 candidate for Centerville Council
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Joanne Rau, 2013 candidate for Centerville Council

And JoAnne Rau, a member of the Centerville city council, put it this way: “Everyone has an opinion, but when you participate in local government, you have a voice.”

I get why some people don’t want to run for office. It’s a pain. You have to fill out forms that aren’t easy to find, get signatures and campaign. And if you win, you have to listen to the complaints of people who didn’t bother to vote in the first place. It makes having your toes slammed with a hammer sound more appealing. It’s why I don’t have a problem when someone runs unopposed, because at least they’re running.

But participation doesn’t only mean running for election or serving on a committee. We can attend council meetings and raise questions. We can ask why commission agendas and minutes aren’t on city or village websites, one of the only real ways nowadays to stay informed. (I did a quick check and found several city sites that had outdated information or none at all). We can canvas on behalf of issues.

At a minimum, we can rally neighbors around issues, have discussions and vote. Throwing away the local vote is the easiest way to throw away democracy. As it stands, very few of us have a hand in electing a local government that spends our tax money and makes decisions for all of us.

Why bring this up now? Several of our local municipalities have off-year elections coming up. Remember, many local governments, like Centerville, are nonpartisan, so political angst shouldn’t be an issue. Everyone wants police and fire protection, and we can affect how that happens at the ballot box. Those cool summer concerts in the park that happen in so many communities? It takes committees to make those happen.

We can destroy democracy by keeping participation at these levels. The rot doesn’t start at the top; it builds from the bottom.

Right now, the rot is us.

Ray Marcano is a long-time journalist whose column appears every Sunday on these pages.