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From the Front Row: Kaye Kory's Richmond Report

By Kaye Kory

Published by the Falls Church News-Press on October 7, 2015

This is the last of my columns that will appear before the upcoming election on Tuesday, Nov. 3, so I thought I would focus on the topic of voting. Of course, the act of voting is necessarily a choice that citizens make that requires effort, some advance planning and the willingness to bear some expense, both in time and money. I strongly believe that this choice should be facilitated aggressively by governments at every level and that, virtually across-the-board, governments are failing miserably on this fundamental responsibility. The consistently low turnout by eligible voters that we see election after election must be viewed as a failure of government and a critical defect in our democratic system. Low turnout elections combined with the explosive increase campaign costs reinforce the perception among average citizens that the system is rigged. Over time, I believe diminishing turnout could lead to public policies that increase the probability of critical system failures, which inevitably have a disparate impact on the economically disadvantaged among us.

I know that my views on this topic are somewhat extreme. Many politicians are comfortable that non-voters are simply making a free choice that should be respected. Similarly, many non-voters seem willing to accept what they perceive as specific election circumstances that would make their votes meaningless.

A number of factors impacting the electoral environment are driving voters away from the ballot-box. Highly charged partisan rhetoric crafted by political communications professionals makes it difficult for average citizens to discern fact from fiction. Lying has become a political art form.  Gerrymandered election maps and relentless voter polling and media communications means that many potential voters correctly conclude that they know the outcome of an election before it is held. Finally, our rising preoccupation with “winning” in both public and private spheres [see anything written by Donald Trump!] rather than “showing up” as an obligation of citizenship seems to justify opting out of a complicated and confusing course of action.

While many of the above points are far more acutely evident in national-level elections, I believe they are also relevant for state and local elections. As such, it is the responsibility of state and local-level officials to develop and implement policies that offset these factors in order to drive up voter participation. The fact that desirability of increasing voter turnout has, apparently, become a partisan political objective should be appalling to all citizens. The “frame” for the discussion is the trade-off between the expense and inconvenience of maximizing voter turnout – more polling places, early voting periods, access to absentee ballots – versus the risk of facilitating election fraud. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans need to depress turnout, because they are the minority party, while Democrats want the flexibility to solicit votes from non-citizens and dead people.

I do not think this characterization is accurate for the Commonwealth of Virginia. During the past session of the legislature, there was bipartisan support for increasing the acceptable Voter ID credentials by allowing Student IDs from private universities to be used for this purpose. Public university IDs are already acceptable. Unfortunately, this extension does not go into effect until January 2016, after the election in November.

The upcoming election in November is a Virginia off-year election, because there are no federal-level or Commonwealth-wide offices being contested. Still, the election is significant. Numerous offices are being contested at the local level, as are all of the Commonwealth’s seats in the House of Delegates and in the Senate. Many jurisdictions are facing ongoing challenges related to economic development, infrastructure investment and responsive governance, with substantial differences among candidates.

Therefore, I urge every registered voter to recognize that voting is not only a choice, but a responsibility; to become informed on the issues and the differences among the candidates; and to “show up” on election day to underscore the value of the privilege you have been accorded.