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Jack Strayer: Recalling voter apathy

Published 7:34am Thursday, May 26, 2011

Have you ever seen so many recall campaigns as we have going on here in Berrien County?  In all my years of involvement with elections and campaigns, dating back to 1976, I have never seen anything like it.
Historically, the first half of 2011 is setting all kinds of Berrien County records for recall petitions … and I am curious why this particular year is generating so much voter discontent.
Since the election of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote for president of the United States but George W. Bush won the electoral college vote and the White House, voters have been expressing their anger and discontent with elected officials on all levels of government. This anger and passion about elected officials have now surfaced on the local level. Even people who have only been in office for five months are being recalled because people disagree with their relatively unproven voting records.
In Michigan, state law stipulates that a recall petition needs the signatures of 25 percent of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election in a particular jurisdiction. This is not based on registered voters but on actual votes cast.
The last time we voted for governor was in November 2010. Looking at the voter turnout results in the City of Niles and Niles Charter Township in the last election, you can see how voter apathy is leading to more and more recall attempts. It has become too easy to recall an elected official.
Take Niles Charter Township for example, where only 27 percent of the registered voters showed up at the polls in 2010. There are 10,356 registered voters in the township, but in 2010, only 3,661 voters participated in the election for governor. That means that 6,695 registered voters didn’t bother to go to the polls on election day. It also means that less than 10 percent of the voters — 915 signatures — is all it takes to mount a recall drive against a Niles Charter Township official until the next election for governor in 2014.
In 2010, only 23.3 percent of registered voters in the City of Niles went to the polls on Election Day. Of 8,754 registered voters in the entire city, only 2,064 votes were cast.
When I worked in Washington DC, I knew quite a few pollsters like Frank Luntz (Republican) and Celinda Lake (Democrat). When they found out I was from Niles, Mich., they got excited because Niles was known as the national bellwether jurisdiction for voting trends. Niles voters reflected the national trend in presidential elections for decades. But now because our voting turnout is so abysmal, the low vote totals make it statistically risky to use Niles polling data anymore as a prediction for presidential election trends and outcomes.
What is bothersome to me is that other jurisdictions in Berrien County had much higher voter turnout on Election Day in 2010. The only jurisdiction in Berrien County with a turnout less than Niles City and Niles Charter Township is the City of Benton Harbor with a turnout rate of less than 17 percent.
This alarming level of apathy means that fewer and fewer qualified people will want to seek public office because they can be so easily recalled for little or no reason. Not only will we have elections in the future where no one will be voting, but also we will have elections where no one will be running. What happens then? Tell me please, what happens then? Who gets recalled for this?

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