Abysmal Turnout

One word that won’t be used to describe the voter turnout Tuesday in Wisconsin is abysmal.  However that’s how the turnout this past weekend for elections in a town in Massachusetts this past weekend was described.

It’s a right that people all across the world have died fighting for.

But in Billerica, only 13 percent of approximately 24,660 registered voters exercised that right last Saturday.

“Abysmal” was the word Town Clerk Shirley Schult used yesterday to describe the voter turnout on town Election Day.

Schult said she spent part of Monday researching yearly voting records. According to town voting statistics dating to 1969, there has never been an election where less than 14 percent of registered voters exercised their right to hit the polls.

Until this past Saturday.

“You say to yourself after something like this, ‘What are we running this for?” Schult said.

While people throughout Wisconsin were well aware there was an election, that wasn’t the case in Billerica.

Volunteers working for the candidates told her that a lot of calls placed last week reminding people to vote were met with befuddlement.

“People were telling the volunteers that they had no idea there was an election going on,” Schult said.

Former state Rep. Bill Greene, a Billerica Democrat, said he can’t remember the last time so few voters showed up at the polls. He added that he “wished he had a solution” for the apathy.

“The biggest interaction people have is with their local government,” he said. “They all show up for the federal elections and the state elections but then they don’t show up for the town election. I just don’t know why.”

To be fair there wasn’t a polarizing race on the ballot in Billerica but the low turnout does raise concerns.  Concerns that likely would have been echoed in Wisconsin if it wasn’t for the State Supreme Court race.

Former Selectman Kathy Matos offered a few explanations for the low turnout and agreed with Greene’s view that local elections have the biggest direct impact on residents.

“But I think we’re seeing a disassociation with government on a local level,” she said. “People think nothing will change and that it doesn’t matter which way they vote.”

Matos added that another factor is the tough economy.

“Instead of people focusing on government, they’re working in 14 directions at once, thinking about their own mortgages and their own bills,” she said. “But there was a big element of apathy and that’s a shame.”

UMass-Lowell political science professor Frank Talty picked a stronger word than apathy when he heard about the turnout in Billerica.

“It’s not as much apathy as it is despair,” he said. “It means more and more people are deciding to disengage in what’s going on. It worries me a little bit to think that people are giving up.”

Talty added that one reason for low voter turnout is the amount of elections Americans experience each year.

“We do vote a lot but we vote so often and for so many offices that we don’t see it as significant in terms of participation,” he said. “In other countries you can go years without having a significant election.”

The high turnout in Wisconsin Tuesday shows that every office or issue on the ballot should be seen as significant.   Hopefully that’s a lesson people across the country can learn.

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