Apathy isn’t a good excuse

Voter turnout (or in the all-mail-in universe, “ballot return”) is an index of civic engagement, but it also holds a mirror to public sentiment. Disengaged voters don’t necessarily telegraph disengaged citizens. They volunteer, they participate in PTA meetings, they pony up to charitable causes. They’ve simply lost that loving feeling for politics.

As The Herald’s Bill Sheets reports, roughly 8 percent of the 412,000 ballots mailed countywide have been returned. This year, 192,000 more ballots will need to be mailed or dropped off by Election Day on Tuesday, to reach the 2011 odd-year return rate of 48 percent.

Low returns neither signal the end times, nor portend a disappointing final total. “All elections are different,” said Garth Fell, a spokesperson for County Auditor Carolyn Weikel.

And an addendum: Not all elections are equal.

Snohomish County’s general-election ballot includes numerous uncontested races, which makes voting akin to something in Turkmenistan. In Everett, two out of three city council seats are uncontested; in Lake Stevens, three out of four; in Bothell, three out of four. Assuming he completes another term, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, who is running unopposed, will become the longest-serving mayor in city history.

Citizens are either satisfied with the incumbents or uncertain about challenging well-funded politicos.

Politics has its micro-climates. There are 8 (!) candidates for Lake Stevens fire commissioner, Position 1, to fill an unexpired term. And there are multiple contested elections for Water and Waste Water commissioner. Like city councils in smaller cities, these races breathe life into grassroots politics. Their work is, well, tangible.

Forty to fifty percent of voters wait until the last few days to send their ballots, and there’s value to delay. Candidates are tested and sometimes exhibit deluded judgment, foreshadowing their leadership style.

This extends to statewide initiatives, such as I-522 on GMO labeling. The Herald’s Editorial Board gave I-522 a reluctant thumbs down, and the “no” forces continue to draw millions from Big Ag ($5.374 million from Monsanto alone.) Political noise and unintended consequences can conspire. The opposition comes off as screechy, desperate to peg labeling supporters as interloping, out-of-state interests. (In fact, both sides are interloping, out-of-state interests.) Ultimately, populist resentment could trump deep pockets.

There are remedies to bolster participation. Everett could hold district elections, giving voice to otherwise disconnected south-end voters; and cities could experiment with voluntary contribution limits or public financing to diversify the candidate pool.

Voters don’t require gimmicks or scolding. Just vote, dear reader, and be heard.

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