In the 2008 general election, only about 57% of the country’s voting age population actually voted. In Georgia, even fewer citizens — 54.7% of the “VAP” — felt it sufficiently important to actually cast a ballot. Although Georgia’s voting percentage was better than Hawaii’s or Texas’ (45.1% and 45.6%, respectively), it’s still nothing to write home about. Undaunted by the already low turnout, however, recently several municipalities in Georgia have decided to employ a decade-old state law that will almost certainly diminish voter interest and turnout even further.
In 1998, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation that permitted local governments to actually cancel elections. This extraordinary power can be exercised if all candidates on a ballot in any particular voting precinct are unopposed. This year, several governments in the Atlanta metropolitan area have opted to use this power and are then beating their chests and declaring to their constituents how fiscally conservative they are.
While this may on the surface appear to be a reasonable way for a local government to save a little money by not holding an election and therefore not paying for printing of ballots, hiring poll watchers, and counting of ballots, it’s actually a pretty dim-bulb idea.
Although I am not a fan of expansive government, and I take just about every opportunity available to rail against the growth of government power and expenditures, there are in fact some things that governments needs to do and which are in fact essential to the functioning of our representative democracy. Holding elections is one of these necessary functions. If it costs a few dollars to provide an opportunity for citizens to go to the polls every other year — or every year for that matter – to be able to voice their opinions through balloting on the quality and direction of government, well, then it costs a few dollars to do that. If government is spending too much money and has to make some cuts, there are any number of other things in which governments engage that are far less justifiable than printing ballots and counting votes.
What are the foreseeable consequences of the short-sighted Georgia law allowing local governments to cancel elections? For one thing, if there are no elections, people’s interest in educating themselves about candidates and public policy issues will understandably wane. People will become acclimated to not going to the polls, at a time we ought to be taking steps designed to get them to the polls. We should never lose sight of the fact that citizens have a right to vote, and allowing a government to take that right away, especially just to save a few bucks, will generate distrust and apathy toward the entire process of governing. (It may also generate law suits challenging the cancellation of elections, which will then eat away at all that cash the local governments “save” by cancelling the balloting.)
Moreoever, by empowering local office holders to cancel elections in their own jurisdiction whenever all posts up for election are uncontested, you are providing incentive for those officials to discourage people from running against them. One can just about hear the discussion – “You know, Joe, there’s no way you can beat me, so why bother to run, since if you don’t, we won’t even have to hold an election and we can just save the taxpayers all that money, which we can use for other worthwhile projects. (wink, wink)”
I’m not sure what the official title of this piece of legislation was, but it should have been, “The Vote Suppression and Incumbent Protection Act.” Perhaps next year the members of Georgia’s General Assembly will figure out yet another way to protect incumbents and diminish voter interest even further.