Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why didn't I participate?

Guest article by Jim Pierce, Sandwich selectman

NOTE: Vote in our poll at the right regarding voter participation.

When I realized how strong a force, or non-force, apathy was, I started looking at my own past. I lived in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for four years, Bedford, Massachusetts for eight years, Lewiston, New York for seven years, Letchworth, UK for four years, Hokessin, Delaware for four years, Raleigh, North Carolina for ten years, and back in Sandwich from 2002 to 2009. Not once over those 44 years did I participate in a purely local election. I had a good excuse in Letchworth: I wasn't a citizen.

The surface excuse I used to rationalize non-participation in all the other cases was family and career didn't leave me time. But does that argument hold water? How much time would it have taken to become familiar with local government? Now we get to the crux of the problem. The time required depends on whether local government was trying to make it easy for me to understand or not. I don't know whether those other towns were reaching out or not. I suspect not. I can tell you that until recently Sandwich has made little or no effort to reach out to non-participants.

Why do I say, until recently? What do voters need to know to contribute? They need to know what the issues are. They need to know how the system works. They need to know who the candidates are. They need to know where the candidates stand on the issues. Today any voter can pick up a copy of the Town Meeting Warrant or go to the Town web site and read the Selectmen's Long Range Plan in about 15 minutes. They will then have a functional knowledge of the issues. They can also go to Town Hall, the Town Hall Annex, or the Town web site and view a copy of a four page brochure, "How the Town of Sandwich is Governed." If they spend a half an hour with that, they will have a functional knowledge of how the system works.

Our local newspapers do a decent job on candidate profiles come election time. However, they might do a better job at eliciting where those candidates stand on critical issues. The questions in newspaper interviews and on candidate night are generally "soft balls." We also don't make very good use of Sandwich Community Television, various blogs and other social media. If we choose to do so, we can make it easy for the voters to know the issues, the system, the candidates, and where the candidates stand on the issues. Or, we can continue to keep the voters in the fog and hope to move forward by playing to the few who do show up.

I remain hung up on the Thomas Jefferson quote. "The success of democracy depends on the participation of an educated and informed electorate." In Sandwich the electorate is well educated. My theory, which may be dead wrong, is that they would participate if we made it easy for them to become informed. Can we use 21st century information technology to revitalize the 17th century New England Open Town Meeting? Before we toss the baby out with the bath water, we should at least try.

1 comment:

  1. Jim, I thought back to the time when I did not go to TM. I did not understand the issues, did not know the players, and did not understand the process. Now that I am retired, I read about the issues, I have got to know many of the players, and to a great extent understand the process. I think that TM is way too short, should be held on Saturdays, and have a more diversified presentation.


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