My colleague in this ink-stained trade, Andrew Dys, last week gave Rock Hill voters a spanking for their poor turnout in Tuesday's City Council election. Methinks he was a bit harsh, but his main point is well taken: Americans don't vote.
Although it's true that less than 4 percent of registered voters showed up last week, the political menu was pretty slim. Of six wards in Rock Hill, only three seats were up for grabs, and in only race could anyone pretend his vote would matter.
The job of mayor, usually the most heated race, was not on the ballot, nor was the Ward 1 seat, because political newcomer Susie Hinton was the only individual who declared for the seat vacated by the death of longtime council member Winston Searles. Another veteran incumbent, Kevin Sutton, did have write-in opposition, but write-in candidacies usually are quixotic at best.
In other words, citizens in five of six districts had little incentive to go to the polls. Still, fewer than 300 votes were cast in the one district where there might have been a horse race. Ordinarily, an 85 percent margin would be staggering, but Kathy Pender was re-elected by a mere 209 votes over a man whose night job is running Rock Hill's only topless club.
I expect his nightclub draws more than 209 customers on a good night (Dys would be a better source on that than I), so had the word gone out that his dancers would appear at the polls, this gentleman might have won -- assuming patrons of topless joints register to vote.
Theories abound about why we don't vote. Some say it's an indication the populace is satisfied with the status quo. Others, like Dys, attribute it to voter apathy, whatever that means.
The embarrassingly low participation in Rock Hill's most recent election simply may indicate that no issues stirred public interest. The news media, including The Herald, certainly didn't publicize the election to any great extent. There was no televised candidates forum. The dearth of campaign yard signs also signified the ho-hum nature of this election.
Even so, Dys is dead-on, saying that Americans' participation in the democratic process is abysmally low. Historically, voter turnout has declined steadily over the past half century. Although more than 55 percent of the voting age population voted in the 2004 presidential election, less than half did so in 1996 when Bill Clinton was running for a second term. The last time as many as 60 percent of eligible Americans voted was in 1968, during the politically tumultuous Vietnam War years. Off-year elections typically draw fewer voters; 1970 was the last year more than 40 percent of us voted in a national election when the White House wasn't up for grabs.
Voting patterns track other markers of civic participation, including civic club membership, church attendance -- even participation in bowling leagues, according to Harvard sociologist and author Robert Putnam. The decline in newspaper circulation parallels those trends, which shouldn't be surprising since the traditional function of newspapers has been to cover the public life of the communities they serve.
Whether these trends are good or bad I'll leave to wiser heads to decide. I would suggest, however, that we elect lot of incompetents to public leadership posts because too many of us don't pay attention.
On a brighter note, I recently witnessed an election that would have warmed the cockles of even Andrew Dys' crusty heart. It was at York Road Elementary School, where officials from the county registration and elections office conducted one in a series of mock elections they are holding in our public schools.
Even though ballot choices included such questions as favorite restaurants and movies, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were excited by the process. Most, as far as I could tell, took to the electronic voting machines with less trepidation than do old coots like me and Dys.
Of course, it may have been that they were happy for the diversion from their regular studies. It's nice to think that our youngest citizens will continue to be infused with curiosity and enthusiasm about voting.
The alternative isn't pleasant to contemplate.