“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”

Jonathan Swift
"The Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital." - Bill Maher
"The city is crowded my friends are away and I'm on my own
It's too hot to handle so I gotta get up and go

It's a cruel ... cruel summer"

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Voting and Speaking Out Redux

Lessons to be learned from low voter turnout

The Amarillo Independents editorial in the May 14 issue addressed the question of the low — no, make that abysmally low — voter turnout in the May 9 municipal and school board elections.

Only 5 percent of the registered voters went to the polls, placing the election in control of less than 3 percent of Amarillo’s population. In the editorial, we stated that people had forfeited their right to engage in civil dialogue by not voting.

But an exchange of ideas on the Panhandle Truth Squad, a local politically oriented blog, has led me to question whether such a black-and-white position is justified. One of the bloggers, a friend and person whose thoughtfulness and opinions I respect, pointed out that he has been active in politics for years. He sat out this election because he felt none of the candidates was worth his time and effort and that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But he has been active in local, state and national political activities for many years.

He believes that his right to speak out is as sacrosanct a right as his right to vote and that his free speech rights as an American citizen and participation in the political process give him the right to do so.

I couldn’t agree with him more. Further, I never meant to indicate that by not voting one forfeits ones right to free speech.

Even former Vice President Dick Cheney’s unseemly continual criticism of President Barack Obama’s administration is protected under the First Amendment and to tell Cheney he has no further right to speak out simply contradicts every tenet that I hold as an American citizen.

Of course, behaviors have consequences and the consequence of Cheney’s continual carping is that he further paints himself with a very negative color that he seeks to avoid.

But back to the question of not voting. My friend made a fairly good case for sitting out this off-cycle election, but its being an off-cycle election really isn’t the issue.

Why waste your time on an election that gives you no real choices? Why bother to vote when you have reached the conclusion that all the incumbents will be returned to office?

However, another friend who posts on Panhandle Truth Squad made the case that teacher’s model behavior and set the example and the same rules apply to those in positions of political activism and political leadership.

So, the logical conclusion from that ends with being no matter how useless you believe your trip to the polls would be, you should still go and cast your ballot.

I like both of my friends’ arguments. But the underlying and nuanced assumption of my first friend is a troubling one. That assumption is no really viable candidate challenged the incumbents and the current officeholders were not such a menace that anyone on the ballot would be a suitable replacement.

Still, that reflects a certain despair in our civic life, and to some degree confirms the point in the editorial that posited the low turnout was related to despair. If my friend reflects 95 percent of the population eligible to vote in Amarillo, then weve got big trouble right here in Yellow City.

I also agree with my first friend on two other points that he made later. First, I still think that whatever good intentions current incumbents may have, they really don’t represent the majority of Amarillo’s population. I don’t think an at-large governmental body, whether here or anywhere else, does.

I think the only hope is for a change in the city charter that would do two things: (1) Establish a City Commission that represent single member districts with two or three at-large commissioners; and (2) Change the power structure in such a way that the mayor and commissioners have more control over city decisions; in other words, reduce the power of the city manager.

The low turnout, however, should be instructive to those who feel so disenfranchised at this point. It gives rise to the theory that a coalition or concerted effort of voters who could muster 6,000 or so votes could prevail on their agenda in the next election. Folks, that is two years away and that gives people plenty of time to pull together.

In the immortal words of Jason Nesmith, commander of the NSEA Protector, "Never give up and never surrender."