David Lias

David Lias

I’ve been digging around in my notes and not quite finding information to help back up the simple message I want to pass along to all Clay County residents 18 and older.

Please, please, please vote on Tuesday.

I say this because we don’t have all that great of a track record when it comes to the primary or local elections that are held in June.

In the June 7, 2016 South Dakota primary – an election that included presidential candidates – total voter turnout statewide was just under 22 percent. That’s about four percentage points less than the statewide turnout for that week’s primary election.

The turnout in Clay County in June 2016 was also just over 22 percent. Clay County voters improved in the June 2018 election, with a total county voter turnout of a little over 28 percent.

I wish I had taken the time to gather more statistics to share more exact voting trends, but when you have to accept a bit over one out of five eligible people voting as an improvement of the over one out four-and-a-half eligible people voting in the previous election, there’s really not a whole lot to celebrate.

In November 2016, nearly 70 percent of registered voters in South Dakota cast ballots in the general election, according to data from the South Dakota Secretary of State’s office. In 2014, the most recent non-presidential election year, just 54.2 percent of registered voters cast ballots in that year’s November general election.

That seems to indicate that every two years or so – the elections that don’t include a presidential race – a lot of us (approximately 15 percent of us eligible voters if the above points to a consistent trend) just don’t find voting to be worth our time.

It’s easy to grumble about things that are happening in Washington, Pierre and yes, sometimes even city hall or the school board or the county commission – local government bodies in which we elect fellow community members and give them the task to make important decisions that affect us all.

There’s been a lot of grumbling about recent decisions of our local governing bodies. Some people don’t want to see the Clay County Courthouse abandoned while others think a bond issue to construct a new courthouse, jail and law enforcement center is the way to go.

I’ve heard griping about the downtown streetscape project, even though the planning of those improvements involved the most transparent process one could think of, with plenty of opportunity for public input.

The Vermillion School Board has begun the process of informing the public of its plan to ask voters this fall to approve a bond issue to fund the construction of a new elementary school to replace the aging Jolley and Austin schools. There hasn’t been a great deal of community discussion on that idea – yet. Perhaps the courthouse issue is on the forefront of everyone’s thinking right now.

We all have the right to vote. Do we have the right to complain, however, when approximately one out of four registered voters takes the trouble to cast ballots? It’s happened before in Clay County. Could it happen again?

I hope not. I’m guessing the courthouse issue, in particular, perhaps has enough people riled up for us to greater than usual turnout in the upcoming June election.

At that same time, it’s a bit depressing. Isn’t every election important, especially our local elections that shape the local governing bodies that have the most effect on our day-to-day lives?

It’s not just a South Dakota problem or a Clay County problem. Tina Rosenberg, writing for the New York Times, notes that one reason turnout is dismal is that the United States is one of very few democracies that places the burden of registration on the voter. Does it seem normal to have to register to vote? It isn’t. In nearly every other advanced democracy, citizens are automatically registered.

She also observes that nearly every other democracy holds elections on weekends, or makes Election Day a holiday. (In some countries, people dress up to go vote!) Voting on a workday isn’t usually a burden for old people, or people powerful enough to set their own hours. For wage workers, however, it’s daunting.

“It is very hard to get voters’ attention,” said Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “We squeeze our Election Day into the middle of everything else Americans are doing. We never say, ‘Stop, think about your country and vote.’ ”

Could we someday observe Election Day as an official holiday in South Dakota? Well, do you remember what we did in 1988?

South Dakota believed that it could get the attention of presidential candidates by moving up its primary election to February that year. It was an experiment that lasted until 1997, when the South Dakota Legislature agreed to follow traditional ways and moved the primary back to June.

If we were willing to move our primary to the cold, icy month of February, why wouldn’t it be a good idea to try other options, like the holiday idea?

At any rate, we local voters are being asked to make some highly important decisions on June 8. We’re being asked to approve or give a thumbs down to a $41 million bond issue.

We’re being asked to choose, among five candidates, the person who will lead our city as mayor for the next year.

We’re being asked to choose, among three candidates, two people to fill upcoming vacancies on the Vermillion School Board.

These are decisions that should be made by more than one out of four of us, or one out of five of us.

Please, please, please vote on Tuesday.

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