On my way to vote Tuesday morning in Raleigh District D, I met Tom Anderson, who was working the polls for his friend, council candidate Jack Alphin. Anderson sported a straw hat with an "Alphin for Council" hatband, set off crisply against his blue blazer and tie. I trust he will not be offended if I say that his presence struck me as a charming anachronism, as did the whole voting experience.
Don't get me wrong, I love voting at the Oberlin Road fire station. I love it that Martha Hoover, who signs in the A-to-L's, knows who I am. I love getting my "I Voted" sticker. I love it that Anderson was there, though I voted for Thomas Crowder. It's self-government through rose-colored spectacles. But if it ever really worked in the past, it isn't working today. The numbers prove that.
Less than one eligible voter in five voted Tuesday in Raleigh. Probably way less. How long do we think we can claim to be a democratic country when half the adult population won't vote even for president?
Democracy, as least as I understand the term, requires that people opt in to the pursuit of their common interests as a community, state and nation. Voting at the same time and place lets us see ourselves making that choice. When I walked into the polls, there was one--one!--other voter present. Message: Our fellow citizens are opting out.
Oh, I know they'll say it's not true. They say they don't have the time to sort out all the candidates--or don't trust the available information.
That last part I understand. By chance, I've got a pro-Alphin mailing on my desk, addressed to me, saying he's "focused on managing growth." It references the Sierra Club--though they didn't endorse him. I've also got an Alphin mailing addressed to a neighbor, a Republican, that says it's "critical to our city that we maintain strong conservatives on our council" lest we have to "pay for the dreams and visions of the liberals."
Well, that's modern politics. Slice up the voting few into sub-groups, then use "targeted" mail, radio and TV to tell each group what it wants to hear. Want to know who the "true" conservatives are? Tune in to Rush, or Bill O'Reilly. True liberals? I'll get back to you on that.
The problem with not voting is that it makes it so easy for the people who really do want to opt out. Last week, Wake County voters were treated to the ridiculous argument--presented by state Rep. Russell Capps and the Wake Taxpayers Association--that school taxes would be lower if voters rejected the $450 million school construction bond issue. That would be true, of course, only if we don't build any schools!
Assuming more schools are built (and the county gets 3,000-plus new students every year), fobbing off some of the costs onto the taxpayers of the future--which is what bond issues are about--is absolutely gonna mean lower taxes today. (Congratulations, Commission Chair Herb Council for calling Capps' stuff what it is: a lie.)
The fact is, though, Capps and his fellow Christian conservatives don't want to build more public schools. They want more private and religious schools. They don't come right out and say that. At least, not to the "liberals."
Reformers Converge. To increase turnout, we should vote on a weekend, not just some Tuesday. We should let people vote on the Internet if they want to. All the voting in Oregon is by mail. We have mail voting here too, but nobody knows it.
These are the obvious ideas, and one more: We need campaign finance reform. Which brings me to an interesting confluence of reformers headed into the Triangle over the next month: U.S. Sen. John McCain, the maverick Republican who's a leading proponent, is coming Oct. 20, a guest of the N.C. Center for Voter Education; he's followed two days later by Chellie Pingree, the national chair of Common Cause and a former state legislator in Maine, where they have public financing of campaigns, a.k.a., "Clean Elections"; finally, on Nov. 1, Democracy North Carolina hosts Jim Hightower, the Texas populist who gave us If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates.
McCain's job is to pitch the virtues of North Carolina's new public financing system for statewide judicial candidates, which debuts in 2004 and will be a national model if it works--meaning if citizens support it.
It's all voluntary--optional for candidates, an optional check-off (but no additional expense) on your state income tax form, optional lawyers' contributions. But as Jesse Rutledge, the center's associate director, reminds me, there's one part that's for sure and could be the start of something terrific for our state: voter guides.
Voter guides are very popular on the West Coast, Rutledge says. They're published and mailed out at public expense, but the information comes from the candidates themselves. What's so great about that? The same information goes to every voter. No slicing.
So far, voter guides are printed. In the future, though, we can put them on a Website, a DVD, in the library, even at the polling place. Available along with Mr. Anderson, of course.