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Commentary: Purple Fingers

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 Commentator

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-503088.mp3

Dallas, TX –

Who can forget last year's memorable pictures of Iraqis holding up stained fingers indicating they had voted. Between 60 and 65 percent of those eligible voted in the 2005 Iraq elections.

Tuesday, only about five percent of registered voters in Dallas thought it was important enough to vote. That's pathetic. Voting is the basic responsibility of citizenship.

However, if we look at how we treat the "customers," the voters, we could do a great deal to improve the experience. Let's look at the ballot first. Our ballot here in Dallas was nine pages long. There were 91 offices to be voted on, but 60 of them were uncontested.

Not until page six did you find the race for District Attorney, probably the highest profile and most important hotly contested race. 38,800 voters turned out, but only 31,000 voted in the governors race. 35,000 voters ploughed through the ballot to vote for D.A. Not until pages eight and nine did you get to the ballot initiatives, and they were important ones this time. Things like "should photo I.D. be required to vote?" That's a very hot topic.

If these ballots were customer friendly, they would be arranged the way you, the voter, want to tackle them. Why aren't uncontested races all at the end?

The next question is: do we have too many elections? Texas is famous for requiring voters to elect a huge number of offices, like this week's ballot. And we have to vote on minutia in procedural changes around the state.

More elections don't seem to translate into more citizen participation. Texas ranks 49th, second to last in last, in voter turnout. Last year, a June election for the Richardson I.S.D. drew less than three percent of registered voters.

Why not ask voters how many elections they want or are willing to participate in a year? One? Three? Ten?

Now, what about the thornier issues? If people don't vote, should the election count? In Dallas last fall, 20 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote in a key bond election authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars. In the last D.I.S.D. election, turnout ranged by district from a low of 2.5 percent to a "high," if I can use that word, of a little over six percent. Incidentally the person who looked that up for me commented, "I had no idea it was that bad."

Saying that some percentage of citizens registered to vote have to vote for the election to be valid would certainly motivate candidates to get the vote out.

To address voter turnout, we have to address attitude. Surveys show that some people forget; some people don't think their vote matters; some people don't like the choices. One of the political pundits wrote a great article years ago, saying that we should be able to vote for "none of the above," so we could vote and register our opinion. Another reason people don't vote is that there's no news about anything except the one or two high profile races. But, these aren't "reasons." They're excuses. You've heard people talk about "Exercising your freedoms." We usually concentrate on "freedoms." We should concentrate on "exercise." If you stop doing anything, it gets flabby. We need robust freedoms. Let's tell it like it is. A good citizen votes!

I'm Merrie Spaeth.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications specialist based in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.

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