Editorial: Low turnout points to a failure in civic lives

Low voter turnout is a result — but also a cause — in the decline in civic engagement.

By The Herald Editorial Board

This is going to come across as scolding — because it is — but with a few exceptions about two-thirds of Snohomish County’s 453,062 registered voters did not vote in last month’s general election.

Index residents can take a bow; a full 72 percent of its 118 registered voters returned their ballots by mail or ballot box for the Nov. 7 election, as The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported Sunday regarding voter turnout in the county.

And while mayoral and city council races in the cities of Snohomish and Mukilteo ranged from contentious to ugly in a few instances, interest in their outcomes at least helped bring voter turnout to 53.3 percent in Snohomish and 51.4 percent in Mukilteo. In Edmonds, 40 percent voted as did 35.8 percent in Mountlake Terrace. Statewide, voter turnout was about 37 percent.

Otherwise, about 2 of every 3 voters in the county took a pass this election year.

The numbers are pretty dismal; just 32.7 percent countywide. In almost all other communities and in the Snohomish County Council districts, turnout was no higher than 33 percent, including in Everett where voters were electing a new mayor for the first time in 14 years and voting in three city council races.

It’s the lowest turnout since 1971’s 31 percent, according to county records.

Typically, turnout is better in even-numbered years when state and federal races are on the ballot and highest in presidential election years. Snohomish County voter turnout was about 51 percent in 2014 and nearly 79 percent in 2016. But even the last off-year election in 2013, showed a countywide turnout of 41.5 percent.

Prior to Nov. 7 election, the editorial board pleaded its case that local “off-year” elections were every bit as important as elections with state and national races on the ballot, because they determined who would be making decisions regarding public safety, transportation, zoning, businesses, schools, fire protection, local taxes and more.

Among the possible explanations discussed in the Sunday story was the lack of a statewide initiative or referendum on the ballot, the first time since 1985; the ballot measures can motivate voters when interest is low in races for elected offices.

Another explanation was simple disinterest in the races themselves. A CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project survey from 2016 found that 72 percent of those registered in the state who didn’t cast ballots told pollsters they skipped the election because they “didn’t like candidates or campaign issues.”

That’s true for some but a cop-out for others who more likely don’t know the candidates or issues and don’t bothered to find out.

The decline in voter participation appears to follow the same trend in the overall decline in civic engagement.

It’s a drop in community participation that has been discussed for more than 20 years, beginning with Robert Putnam’s 1995 article in the Journal of Democracy and later as a book by the same name, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” which noted the slide in participation in social organizations such as the PTA, Elks and Kiwanis clubs, labor unions and even bowling leagues and outlined factors in the decline.

But a lack of information and understanding of community issues is among the most critical explanations for low voter turnout and civic engagement.

A recent article in Wired magazine, “Don’t Stop the Presses! When Local News Struggles, Democracy Withers,” notes how Oakland’s East Bay Times went from winning the Pulitzer this April for its reporting into the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people to having to lay off several staffers a week later because of declining ad and subscription revenue.

The article’s author, Henri Gendreau, details the pressures facing local journalism and talks with a Portland State University professor, Lee Shaker, who has focused his studies on local newspapers. Shaker, researching the Seattle and Denver markets between 2008 and 2009 when Seattle lost the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver lost the Rocky Mountain News, measured a statistically significant decline in civic engagement because of the loss of those publications.

“You can kind of see this cascading series of consequences,” Shaker tells Gendreau. “If people don’t get local news, they don’t know what’s going on in their community. If they don’t know what’s going on in their community, they don’t get involved in their community. If they’re not involved in their community, and others aren’t involved in their community, their government may not actually function very well.”

Dissatisfaction feeds cynicism, which discourages interest and involvement, which circles back to dissatisfaction.

The key to reversing that cycle isn’t a mystery: It requires commitment to involvement.

Public officials have to become more responsive and transparent to those they are supposed to represent. The news media must better demonstrate and invest in their duty to the breadth and depth of coverage, fairness and accuracy. And citizens must take their responsibilities seriously toward awareness of local, state and national issues and participation — not just in elections — but in their communities’ day-to-day activities.

More simply: We won’t have the government and communities we want if two-thirds of us are going to skip the election.

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