For a couple of years, I was the Election Chief for Stefaniga precinct in Rock Hill district. We had a lot of elections during that time so I saw it all, from a special August Republican primary that no one knew about to a Presidential election. 2012 certainly brought out the masses, I didn't realize that many people even lived in Rock Hill. By contrast, the August primary on the day of the earthquake in Louisa County saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 voters.
A national election produces long lines of voters flowing out of churches, schools and libraries as citizens wait patiently to cast their ballot. They are happy to do so to perform the civic duty of choosing the new leader of the free world. Which is great but also probably not as important as they think. Most of these people would certainly make a much bigger difference in their communities if they showed up for the elections held in the three years in between national elections and for primaries.
But what about Obamacare, or it's repeal (depending on your side of the aisle), what about executive orders and appointing Supreme Court Justices? OK, I didn't say the President has NO affect on your life, just not nearly as much as your local elected officials. Think about the ways your Board of Supervisors, School Board and State Representatives hold influence over your everyday life:
- As we all know from recent events, the School Board decides what schools your child will attend but they do so much more. They approve budgets and funding for school programs and decide which capital improvement projects have the highest priority. They hire the superintendent, the individual who makes all the important decisions about curriculum, teacher training and retention, the person who steers the SCPS ship. Up until their most recent hire of Dr. Bruce Benson, the SB completely failed on this and one could say this failure negatively affected all SCPS students over the previous decade. But let's say you don't have kids...
- The Board of Supervisors has an even wider influence on your life. It is literally their job to run the county and they can run it into the ground if voters aren't engaged. They set local tax rates, approve both commercial and residential development, decide what capital improvements need to be made OR NOT depending on their priorities and judgement. These people make a ridiculous amount of decisions that affect Stafford citizens lives but many of those very citizens couldn't even name their own district, much less who their supervisor is.
- Do I really even need to relate how much power the state legislatures have? After just a brief glance at Ballotpedia's Virginia General Assembly page one can see the VGA has recently tackled such issues as gun control, abortion, minimum wage, education. Visit TheBullElephant.com to learn all about the $97 billion dollar Medicaid expansion attempt. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, we can't leave politicians to play with that kind of money unchecked. Still not convinced it matters to you? How about the VGA's elimination of building proffers, which means the BoS can no longer ask for money from developers to help with the building of infrastructure, like schools and roads? That will most certainly affect Stafford County as we continue to grow.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg, I ask anyone to list as many as you can think of in the comments. Our local elected officials have so much control over the lives of Stafford County citizens, yet many don't even know their names much less show up to vote either for them or against them.
But I am nothing if not about numbers so how about some more concrete proof of voter apathy.
As you can see from the spreadsheet above, pulled from the Stafford County Government site , the numbers tell the story. Election years 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 have turnout percentages of 66%, 71%, 74% and 74% respectively. The highest turnout in an off year was 50% but most years fall into the 30's range with an abysmal 17% in 2003. This chart only tracked turnout until 2013 but a little more digging produced more recent numbers.
These numbers are ripped from the Virginia Department of Elections website (2014 data posted was incomplete.) The top information is from 2015, an off election year, and shows that a mere 27.3% of registered voters showed up at the polls in Stafford. The VDoE website states that there were 90522 registered voters during our most recent Presidential election and when you do the math, that's 73% of registered voters who showed up to vote just one year later in 2016.
Keep in mind, these numbers only represent registered voters, NOT the entire population of Stafford County. That number was projected to be almost 140,000 in February of 2016, according to the Stafford Government website. But we are a military town, after all, so there are a lot of people who live here and vote elsewhere. When you take that into account, plus the fact that children are included in the population numbers, the difference in registered voters to general population isn't too alarming.
But this is alarming... in 2015, only one quarter of registered voters choose the Rock Hill, Griffiths-Widewater and George Washington Districts Supervisor and School Board officials. They also chose our Clerk of Court, Sheriff, Commonwealth's Attorney, Treasurer and had a wide influence in multiple state races.
Let's put it another way: You walk into a room with 20 people in it. You are told that 5 of those 20 people will be chosen at random. These 5 people will make all the important decisions that will affect your life over the next four years but you can't choose who they are. You just have to turn around, leave the room and hope for the best. Would you be comfortable with that, leaving these important decisions in the hands of a tiny group of strangers? If you aren't voting in elections other that the national ones, that is exactly what you are doing.
One final thought; so as not to point fingers at any of our current public servants, let's look at the results of an off year 2015 race where we can all agree the winner should have lost, regardless of your opinion of her opponent.
Just in case you don't know, Emily Fallon is currently in prison after an embezzlement conviction last year. Of course, no one knew of her antics at the time but it is worth noting that only 274 votes separated her from incumbent Dana Reinboldt, in a race where only 2206 people voted. Personally, I am glad Jamie Decatur ended up in this position, I think she is exactly what the SB needs. However, it's just goes to show that one vote, or a handful of them, really can make a difference when so few are showing up to vote in the first place.
For more information on how to register to vote in Stafford, or to find out when and where to vote, please click the link here to visit the Stafford County voter registration website.