Here’s an interesting perspective on the voter turnout in Tuesday’s elections.
On April 7, 2009, a total of 9,374 voters cast ballots in the 49 Lawrence precincts for a turnout of just under 14 percent.
On April 7, 1909, the Lawrence Daily World reported that 3,681 ballots were cast in an election that produced a landslide victory for Sam Bishop over W.H. Carruth for the office of Lawrence mayor. On Feb. 21, 1909, the World had reported: “Registering one person a minute for more than eight hours yesterday, city clerk Frank Brooks closed the poll books at 10 o’clock last night with the largest voter registration Lawrence has ever known, more than 4,115 after a preliminary count.”
So let’s do the math. The number of ballots cast in 2009 was about two and a half times the number cast in 1909, but the population of Lawrence is about eight times larger now, about 88,000, compared with about 11,000 in 1909.
And votes cast by 3,681 of 4,115 registered voters (women could vote in municipal elections by then) would represent a turnout of about 89 percent, compared with 14 percent in 2009.
OK, so times change. Lawrence is a different city than it was in 1909. Still, the comparison should make local voters ashamed.
A number of factors — excuses? — have been cited for Tuesday’s low turnout. There were no hot-button issues to draw voters to the polls. Being able to apply a litmus test on a hot topic often helps voters differentiate between candidates. In 1909, Lawrence voters probably already knew about everyone on the ballot; in 2009, they may have to work at it a little harder.
It can be argued that last November’s presidential election swelled the local registration rolls and therefore made Tuesday’s turnout percentage even smaller, but what about 1909, when they were registering “one voter per minute” on the day the registration rolls closed?
The lack of a primary election may also have been a factor. State law eliminated local primaries when only a few candidates would be knocked out of the race, but cities can use their home rule powers to override the state law. Even if, as would have been the case this year, only a few candidates are eliminated, primary elections help voters get to know the candidates and issues and may create a horse-race atmosphere that gets people to pay more attention to the election. Increasing voter participation could be well worth the expense of a primary election, and Lawrence city commissioners should look into opting out of the state law.
Excuses aside, however, voting still is largely a matter of personal responsibility. Although important issues related to the economy, social services, job creation and other matters are facing the city — not to mention key decisions awaiting local school board members — less than 14 percent of Lawrence voters thought those issues were important enough to warrant a trip to the polls on Tuesday.
Maybe it’s impossible to shame people into voting, but, if not, this year’s dismal comparison to the dedication of Lawrence voters a century ago should do the job.