News & Opinion » Urban Journal

How much do we really care about democracy?


Do you suppose Rochester voters will do their civic duty and show up at the polls on November 5?

Participation in city elections has been low for years, but I was astonished at the dismal turnout in the September primary. The people who have fessed up about not voting say they figured Tom Richards would win the mayoral race handily, so they didn't need to vote. This is profoundly troubling, on two levels:

First, they see a responsibility to vote only in close elections – only if they're afraid their candidate is going to lose. Second, they see no responsibility whatsoever to vote for school board and City Council.

I'm simply speechless.

Let me say right here that this isn't another plea for people to support the candidates this newspaper has endorsed. We've had our say. But for Pete's sake: the city – its residents, its services, its schools – face enormous challenges. All of us have to be involved in meeting those challenges, and that includes voting. And on Primary Day last month, most Rochester Democrats stayed home.

Here's the problem with that:

Voter registration in Rochester is so heavily Democratic that Democratic primary winners are virtual shoo-ins in November. Only registered Democrats can vote in the primary, though. Which means that Republican, Conservative, Working Families, Independence, and Green Party voters, plus more than 19,000 people who don't want to be affiliated with any party at all – in total, 36 percent of the city's registered voters – are pretty much shut out of the democratic process.

The Republican Party has mostly stopped fielding city candidates. Third parties are trying to break through, but they're heavily outspent and outmanned. The political system is literally rigged against them.

So Democrats select the mayor, the members of City Council, and the members of the school board.

And most Democrats don't care enough to vote.

The mayoral primary in September featured two candidates who differ dramatically in how they think the city should be run, and who will take us down very different paths. The five City Council incumbents had four challengers. Ten people ran for the three open school board seats. And around 23 percent of registered Democrats cast votes in that election. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats in the city simply couldn't be bothered.

So here's my lecture: People in numerous other countries would give anything to be able to vote for the officials who run their governments and their schools. People – in this country and in others – have died pushing for the right to vote. At this very moment, the right to vote is under attack in some parts of this country.

And Democrats in Rochester are too blasé to vote.

So thanks to the 15,000 or so Dems who did turn out on Primary Day. And thanks to Lovely Warren and her impressive campaign supporters, who have been wearing themselves out to elect her.

Thanks to the Greens' Alex White and all the other candidates who are challenging the Democrats for whom a veritable handful of people voted in September.

And thanks to Tom Richards (who was pulled out of retirement into public service and then, despite the trauma of having a desperately ill son, agreed to seek re-election in that primary).

The rest of us owe all these folks (and yes, all the Democrats on the ballot, too) the respect they're due. We owe them our presence at the polls on Election Day.

And here's the thing: Given this city's challenges, it is a very risky thing to have relatively few voters choosing the people who guide its future. Rochester will be far better off if the people in charge – the mayor, the members of Council, the members of the school board – know that all of us care about what they're doing. And that more than a handful of us have placed our trust in them.