Local Commentary

Editorial: Why the Low Voter Turnout?

A member of the Falls Church City Council was shaking his head this week, downright puzzled at why the voter turnout for the Falls Church municipal election last month was so low.

It reflected the usual inexplicable voter pattern for Falls Church, including many of you reading this editorial. For some reason, the turnout for U.S. presidential elections is far higher than for any other election, even though the impact the individual voter has on that election is microscopic compared to, say, a local city council election. In Falls Church, with the highest percentage of adult residents holding post-graduate degrees of any jurisdiction in America, and almost always first in Virginia in voter turnouts for presidential and statewide races, you’d think the wide discrepancy between national, state and local elections wouldn’t hold. But it does. And moralistic finger wagging hasn’t helped change that.

So, what’s going on? First of all, folks show up to vote in presidential elections because they want a piece of national history. It’s like showing up at a concert by somebody really famous compared to one by somebody not famous but really good. People want to be able to tell their grandchildren who they voted for in a presidential election.

There’s no such sex appeal associated with a local election, even though the impact of individual votes are exponentially higher and the issues much, much closer to home. By and large, busy people, even ones who make a living at politics, don’t take the time to study the issues and the candidates, even with the benefit of a really classy local newspaper to inform them. Even if they do study them, they won’t necessarily take the trouble to find parking, walk from there to the poll, run the gauntlet past the leafleteers, stand in line and vote.

They won’t that is, unless they’re really upset. It is safe to say, therefore, that non-votes in a local election, especially in election-savvy Falls Church, constitutes a tacit vote of confidence for the status quo.

It was suggested to the City Council member mentioned above that if he and his colleagues had not carefully vetted and approved the modest wave of new, large-scale mixed use projects over the last half-dozen years, bringing millions of new tax revenues, even in the earliest stages, into City coffers, then the voter turnout might have been a lot higher last month. That would be the case, for example, had the Council, failing to approve the projects, had to either impose a monstrous tax rate hike or make draconian cuts in city services and school funding.

That would improve voter turnout for sure, it was suggested. Angry voters would storm the polls to demand relief from such effects of failed governing. The fact that they didn’t, and by-and-large stayed home, means they’re happy with how the current City Council has been navigating the pathway for the sustainable future of the city, and the Council should take heart in, and well-deserved credit for, that.