Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A study in apathy: voters in Palmetto Bay, Florida

As a resident of Palmetto Bay, I'm always heartened when I go to the polls vote and see long lines (even when these lines are partly a result of needlessly long ballots cluttered with dim-witted amendments for the Florida Constitution). Because I think it's important for people to vote, for people to have their voices heard. And at first glance, it would seem that a majority of the folks who live in my community agree with this. But let's dig in to the numbers, for real (all data in this piece is available at the Miami-Dade County Elections Website).

In 2012, there were 16,312 registered voters in Palmetto Bay. In 2014, there were 16,478 registered voters. And in 2016, there were (are) 17,045 registered voters. The current overall population of Palmetto Bay is around 24,000 people. So that's pretty good, if one factors out children. Most of the people eligible to vote in the area are, in fact, registered to do so. With that in mind, let's look at actual turnout for the last three elections, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

In 2012, about 10,100 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 62% (overall turnout for the country was 57.5%).

In 2014, about 8,200 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 50% (overall turnout for the country was 36.4%). Quite a dip for both, yet sadly typical in an off-year election (no Presidential race).

In 2016, about 11,700 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 68% (overall turnout for the country was 57.4%, pretty much in line with 2012).

Looking at these numbers, one is likely to ask what the hell I am talking about when I suggest there is voter apathy in Palmetto Bay. Because it's obvious that Palmetto Bay's voter turnout levels routinely exceed national averages (State of Florida averages as well, truth be told). One can't help but conclude that Palmetto Bay residents are, as a group, politically engaged.

But are they? Are they, really?

In 2012, two of the local races for Palmetto Bay featured more than two candidates, none of whom garnered a 50% share of the vote, thus initiating a run-off election between the top two vote-getters in each race. In this election, exactly 4,168 voters cast ballots, for a turnout rate of 26%.

In 2014, again there were two local races without a clear winner, initiating another run-off election. In this election, exactly 4,416 voters went back to the polls to vote, for a turnout rate of 27%.

And that brings us to 2016 and the the run-off election that occurred yesterday (though this time it involved only one contest). How many voters showed up (at the polls or by mail-in) this time? Exactly 3,579, for a turnout rate of 21%.

Let that sink in for a moment. Turnout for the run-off election was less than one third that of the general election.

There are real issues at stake when it comes to local elections. City councils and executives have real power and their decisions can and do impact every single resident in the communities they represent. In Palmetto Bay, we're facing some very important issues, with regard to development, schools, and traffic. How these things are handled will affect everyone's quality of life, not to mention things like property values, business investment, and tax revenues. Yet, almost 80% of just the registered voters couldn't be bothered to spend five minutes at the polls or to simply mail in a ballot to help decide the future of the community. Pardon my salty language, but what the FUCK is up with that?

The general election attracted over three times more voters. Why? Because of the Presidential race, that's why. People were fired up to vote there, one way or another. They thought it was important for their voices to be heard, just as they did in 2012. And even in 2014, more of them were interested in the national election than in the local one, as well, even without a Presidential race.

True enough, national elections have real consequences and are important, there's no denying this. But who exactly has convinced people that these elections are far more important than local (and state) ones? How are people arriving at their decisions to not participate in their own local politics, other than when it's convenient to do so?

I submit that it's a consequence of three things: 1) a media who is overly concerned with national politics (even local news stations report on national politics), 2) a piss-poor general education in civics and government in our public schools, and 3) a celebrity-obsessed population who equates "fame" and "attention" with "importance."

But regardless, I find it shameful, and I'm not inclined to cut anyone any slack whatsoever for why they couldn't be bothered to vote. And if and when decisions are made in local government that they aren't happy about, they can stuff their complaints.

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