Start thinking now about 2004 election

Kai Hagen

November 6, 2003

In case you didn't notice, this past Tuesday was Election Day.

Not in Frederick County, this time. But there were elections in Virginia, and a number of other states and municipalities around the country. Closest to home was the hard-fought election across the Potomac, where there's been a heated campaign for the nine seats on Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors. Not surprisingly, in a county that has doubled in size in a decade and is still one of the fastest growing counties in the country, two major issues of the campaign were growth and taxes.

This column is being written before the results are in, but the good news for democracy is that because of the important issues at stake, hotly contested campaigns and months of media attention, Loudoun County voters were expected to flock to the polls.

The bad news is that even with clear differences between the candidates about contentious issues with real consequences for the county now and well into the future, "flocking to the polls" is meant to describe an election day where as many as half of all registered voters didn't bother to vote at all. Clearly, the low turnout can only be described in such glowing terms because the history is so dismal.

In comparable election years, the Loudoun County turnout was 34 percent of registered voters in 1999, and 47.9 percent "flocked to the polls" in 1995. I'd like to report the record is much better in Frederick County. But it isn't. Although Frederick County is not growing as fast as our Virginia neighbor, we are experiencing many of the same problems and similar questions about our future.

Last year, Frederick County residents went to the polls, some of us anyway, with almost everything up for grabs, including the entire Board of County Commissioners and Maryland's next governor. But without a U.S. Senate or presidential race on the ballot, more than 75 percent of registered voters didn't know enough or care enough to vote in the primary. And more than 40 percent of us didn't vote in the final election last November. In fact, less than 40 percent of eligible American citizens exercised their right to vote in the non-presidential years 1998 and 2002.

Without even getting into questions about how well informed the average voter is today, there's no denying that at least half of eligible voters are taking the most fundamental element of democracy for granted.

Why do so many of us choose not to vote?

Everything from detailed studies to personal conversations suggests there are a number of reasons, including ignorance and apathy about government -- our role in the process and its effect in our lives -- as well as antipathy about the nature of campaigns and politics and the role of money and influence peddlers.

The irony of it all is that when so many people choose not to get involved and not to vote because of the ways things work, or don't work, the problems just get worse.

For example, it's commonplace for non-voters and voters alike to complain about the impact of money in elections, about how much of the job of elected officials is fund raising, and the effect chasing dollars has on political leadership and decisions made in Winchester Hall, Annapolis and Washington.

But what does that money buy? And why has it become unlikely, almost impossible, to win an election without raising and spending more than the other guy?

No doubt, every sizable campaign needs money to hire staff, coordinate volunteers, rent space, pay for travel, produce and distribute information, etc. But all that can be covered with a fraction of what is typically raised and spent.

At the root of the problem is that politicians vying for any but the most local offices generally have to spend a lot of money on expensive radio and television advertising. They have to do that works.

Consider for a moment, that even if a candidate has a lengthy track record, and had been campaigning for a year, distributing literature, giving speeches and participating in debates; even if he or she maintains a detailed Web site, and even if there are many third-party sources of objective and not-so-objective information, in most cases the campaign has to spend a fortune or two down the homestretch to reach a critical percentage of people who may or may not vote, who haven't paid attention until a few weeks or days before the election, and whose decision could be made on the basis of a few 15- or 30-second sound bites and slick images on television.

Another way of putting it is that all of us get the government that only some of us deserve.

The widespread disinterest of so many in the process and issues between elections causes most of the problems so many complain about. And it's a downward spiral from there. More apathy. More mind-numbing and manipulative media campaigns. More money that has to be raised, and spent. And so on.

Frederick County residents get to vote twice next year, and twice more in three years. These are opportunities to make the process work as it should, and to make a difference. But only if we start thinking about it and talking about it now.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at