Doing the Deed of Democracy

By Deirdre Helfferich
Published October 1st 2009 in The Ester Republic
Voting and Talking

The recent (unofficial) Fairbanks North Star Borough election results by precinct (as of October 6) show 1,456 registered voters in the Ester precinct. Of that number, only 460 of us voted. That’s about a 31.6 percent turn-out: pretty damn pitiful. Our voting turnout has been declining; we used to have the best in the Interior, but now we regualrly get beaten by Goldstream #2 (about 34 percent). (At least we weren’t as horrible as the university campus precinct, which only had 7.3 percent turnout.) We (and I say “we” because I was one of those 460 Ester precinct voters) voted for Luke Hopkins, Daniel Osborn, Nadine Winters, Mike Musick, Silver Chord, Wendy Dominique, and Sharon McConnell. We voted for the school bonds and local regulation of air quality, but against opting out of the state financial disclosure regulations for local officials.

The number of registered voters in the borough is 67,832, but the borough overall didn’t get a great turnout, either. Only 15,859 people (total tally, as of Oct. 13), or 23.4 percent of the registered voters, turned out to do their basic civic duty. That’s less than one out of four registered voters. And this minority is even tinier when you include those people who are eligible to vote but don’t even register.

Now consider how many letters to the editor you read, or comments on blogs, or complaints in the bar you hear, about property taxes or politicians or borough or state or national policies. My bet is that most of those complainers don’t actually vote—which means that really, they’re just whiners. It’s one thing to try to do something about a perceived problem in government by running for office or serving on a local commission, or even just voting, and fretting aloud when government doesn’t do right, and entirely another when somebody doesn’t even bother to vote, and then jumps up and down and complains and whines about how terrible government or politics is. The first person is doing what citizenship in a free country requires: participating. The second person is just blaming other people and institutions for what is really their own fault. Paying taxes doesn’t count—-all that means is that you are funding something, not that you are helping to determine what that funding does. Citizenship is an active process, and the bare minimum that it asks is voting. One doesn’t have to vote to be a citizen, but it sure makes listening to the gripers in the saloon a lot easier when I know they’re attentive to their minimum civic responsibility. At least then I know they’ve got the gumption to actually do something about what they believe in, rather than just talk.

Money Down the Drain

The borough mayoral election this year, like the Fairbanks mayoral election in 2007,* was a rather predictable waste of money and time. Both elections required a runoff election, which have notoriously low turnout and cost buckets of money that our local governments don’t have. I correctly predicted on my blog October 4 that Luke Hopkins would win the plurality of the vote but that a runoff would be required. Hopkins got more votes than anybody else, but he didn’t reach the 40 percent threshold required to actually win—-and no wonder! With the rest of the field split between five conservatives and the odd write-in, it was pretty unlikely that he’d get the votes needed.

What would make much more sense is for the borough and the city to adopt Instant Runoff Voting, or some other variety of ranked choice voting, as it incorporates a runoff election the first time, and thus avoids the expense and bother of having to go through the whole rigamarole every time there’s a wide field or a close group of leading candidates. The advantages of this kind of system are well-documented: it reduces costs by eliminating the need for runoff and primary elections, avoids the problems of vote-splitting and so-called “spoiler” candidates, improves voter turnout, reflects voters’ true preferences better, diminishes the nastiness of election campaigns (candidates have to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters, rather than polarize the electorate), and lessens the amount of time and bother for voters.

But alas, we are still stuck with plurality voting here in the borough, and so we have a runoff election scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. I know it’s a bother, but it is important that each and every one of you get out there and vote. Otherwise, that election is a waste of money, and we’ll get stuck with a mayor who was elected by a miniscule amount of borough voters—not someone who truly reflects the choice of the people.

And besides, you’ll get to hang out with your fellow voters, yak with the poll volunteers, and then, after you’re done, proudly wear that “I Have Voted—Have You?” badge all day, to remind the world what democracy is all about.

* See my editorial in The Ester Republic from October 2007, “Fairbanks Needs IRVing.