The images are dramatic enough to qualify for prime-time network news coverage: Voters in third-world countries lined up at the polls, waiting for hours to cast their ballots, often under the threat of intimidation or physical violence. Rioting and even deaths are not uncommon in the days leading up to elections in global hot spots. Even when widespread fraud renders the voting process an act of futility, citizens in nascent democracies still put themselves through hell to exercise their fundamental right.

Such passionate devotion to such a simple endeavor, especially when a single vote would make little difference and staying home would seem the more prudent course, must look baffling to the majority of Americans. Even when the stakes are the highest, the percentage of eligible U.S. voters who bother to voice their opinions on election day has been dismally low for decades. Though the reasons for our collective withdrawal from democracy’s keystone institution have been hashed and rehashed by the pundits–apathy, endless and negative campaigns, a sense of disenfranchisement–even partial solutions appear beyond anyone’s grasp.

While public disinterest in the races for president and other major offices typically averages more half the population, turnout in municipal elections has fallen to barely detectable levels since the 1930s. The expectations of local election boards have been ratcheted down to the point where a 25 percent turnout is hailed as a participatory triumph. Perhaps the lack of celebrity and spectacle depresses interest in campaigns for city council or county commissioner. Yet these elections have the most significant day-to-day impact for all but a relative handful of people, because the winners of local races make the fundamental decisions that will shape their communities far into the future.

So jeers to the allegedly savvy and socially committed residents of the People’s Republic of Carrboro, emblematic of this year’s municipal elections in the Triangle. The next decade will bring many changes to the town, and the Board of Aldermen has set a dramatic and controversial course, at least by Carrboro standards. While the election offered only a couple of alternative candidates and the results clearly favored the status quo, that doesn’t excuse the 80 percent who didn’t bother to express their opinions. A fraction of that 80 percent was doubtless among the throng that crammed the public hearings and voiced objections to the Winmore and Pacifica projects, or complained about the expanded five-story building limit. Where were they on November 4?

And who in Chapel Hill didn’t have a strong opinion about the contentious relationship between UNC and the town? Or the proposed Habitat for Humanity development? Or the future of downtown? A diverse group of 12 candidates for Town Council offered plenty of conflicting views and a plethora of possible outcomes, but only 20 percent of the registered townsfolk took the trouble to vote.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro did better than most Wake County towns. Apex, which faces relentless growth pressures and a host of related issues, drew less than 13 percent to the polls. Wake Forest ranked about the same despite the grassroots efforts of Bedsheet Bandits for a Change, which put together an alternative slate to challenge the incumbents. Raleigh’s two district runoffs were of interest to only 13 and 8 percent of their respective residents. Morrisville also scored in single digits, even though candidates for the Board of Commissioners disagreed on how to address such heady issues as the lack of a downtown and decent parks, water and sewer problems, and crumbling streets.

The exception in Wake, Garner had one of the higher local turnouts at 26 percent. The masses there were apparently galvanized by an advertising blitz in the three-way race for mayor and heavier-than-usual spending by candidates for the Board of Aldermen. Mayoral challenger Joe Sample, who finished last, shelled out more than $26 for each vote he received. Collectively, candidates in Garner spent more than $13 for every vote cast.

Even in Durham, with its well-organized PACs, active neighborhood groups and electrically charged racial politics, and with its administration buried in scandal, less than 27 percent of the voters bothered to show up on election day, anemic by any rational standard.

If policy makers wish to better engage the multitude in the electoral process, the Garner experience suggests a new twist to an old theme: Just pay voters outright. Or perhaps future elections should be required to have a celebrity on the ballot to pump up the turnout, a concept refined by Arnold Schwarzenegger and the supporting cast of lesser stars who enticed more than 65 percent of eligible Californians to vote for governor in October.

But politicians and their pals don’t really want change, because low voter turnout benefits them more than anyone. When candidates, bond referenda or ballot initiatives only need the support of 10 percent of the population to succeed–or in Morrisville, less than 5 percent –the task is simpler and cheaper to accomplish. And like teenage smokers convinced that their habit is an act of rebellion rather than an act of conformity, voters voluntarily subvert their own interests by opting out en masse.

The only real way to reinvigorate what has become a uniquely American style of democracy would be to cancel the right to vote altogether. That’s not entirely beyond comprehension–when voting rates plunge below 10 percent, it’s a short conceptual leap to no vote at all. After a period without any meaningful access to the power structure, cynicism and apathy would be shoved aside in the stampede to the polls once the vote was restored. Sure, that might take a few years, or a few dozen. It’s a lesson that people in other parts of the world understand all too well.

Ties that bind
“This campaign–this office–is about helping people. It’s about helping people who are victims of crime.”

So spoke Mike Easley in 1996 while running for re-election as Attorney General. Throughout his political career, Easley has proclaimed his allegiance to crime victims and pledged to advance their agenda. He created a Citizens Rights Division within the AG’s office that focused on child abuse and domestic violence, and he supported a victim’s rights amendment to the state constitution. The theme has carried over into his tenure as governor.

Now Easley has revealed that his self-serving rhetoric doesn’t apply to certain victims, at least those who prefer reconciliation to revenge. The family of Isabella Crawford, murdered in 1990 by her nephew, appealed to Easley to grant clemency to the killer, death-row inmate John Daniels. Easley summarily rejected their request, and Daniels was executed Nov. 14.

Crawford’s family included blood relatives as well as nine step-grandchildren. The blood relatives, Daniels’ mother, son and siblings, unanimously said they’d forgiven him for the crime and wished to avoid having further pain inflicted on the family. Eight of the nine step-grandchildren agreed that life without parole was the more appropriate punishment; even the lone holdout for death agreed that clemency would have been consistent with their grandmother’s own philosophy of forgiveness. One of the eight made a personal appeal to Easley on behalf of the family at Daniels’ clemency hearing.

But Easley’s sympathy for victims takes a back seat to his need to support his fellow prosecutors and the system they represent, no matter how flawed or corrupt. In the weeks before the execution, Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Marsha Goodenow was so persistent in trying to recruit Crawford’s family members to stump for death that they finally retained a lawyer to stop the harassment. In the end, she got one. On the other side stood 15 family members, joined by several friends and in-laws. Whatever purpose Easley hoped to accomplish by allowing the execution to go forward, respecting the wishes of the victim’s family didn’t make the cut. EndBlock