Wednesday, we had Council meetings scheduled from 4:00-6:00 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. to whenever.  The plan was an hour meal break before tackling a long agenda that could go late into the night.  Like most everyone else, we have been practicing austerity; so we didn’t make arrangements to bring in dinner.  Sadly for all concerned, the first meeting didn’t adjourn until 7:00 p.m., and there was no chance for anyone in attendance to eat.

Near the beginning of the second meeting, our Mayor made a brief comment that she was feeling a little disorganized because she and the Council hadn’t had a break in meetings or a chance to eat for some time.  An hour or so later, a pizza delivery person showed up at the back of Council Chambers with a stack of pizzas which he handed to our Police and Fire Chiefs.  I saw the pizzas arrive and, like any cynical city manager, assumed someone was playing a joke by ordering food for us with the expectation that we would pay for it.  I went back to talk to the chiefs; and the actual story was that a citizen was watching the webcast of the meeting, heard the Mayor’s comment, and decided to order AND PAY for enough pizzas to feed about 15 people.  Our Fire Chief spoke to the Good Samaritan after getting his phone number from the pizza delivery folks, and he said he just wanted to express his appreciation for the hard work of the Council.

 We hear the usual complaints from citizens about the City, and sometimes we start to believe that no one appreciates the things we do.  The passage of our recent levy request in a community where many people are feeling the effects of hard times and this small act of kindness are nice reminders that we work for people of many dispositions.  The recent evidence here suggests the positives outweigh the negatives.  I plan to be less cynical for awhile.

Why More People Don’t Vote (and does it matter?)

Voting behavior has been a subject of concern to political scientists for generations, and the question of why more people don’t vote seems to arise after every election.  Several recent letters to the editor of the Democrat-Herald have complained about the low vote count for the City’s public safety levy, and some have theorized that people didn’t vote because they knew their ballot wouldn’t make a difference. 

People don’t vote, in my opinion, for a range of bad reasons that include everything from complacence to ignorance.  I know our schools are teaching civics because I regularly talk with young people who know the basics about how our government works; however, I don’t know how many young people apply their knowledge or reinforce it after they leave school.  The evidence seems to suggest that most adults know very little about their government.  If that’s true, there aren’t many good reasons why it should be.  Information is available almost everywhere; and, due to the Internet, citizens have access to more information about their government than at any other time in history.

I can understand complacence because it is hardly surprising that people focus their energy and attention on family and employment before worrying about what their government is doing.  I think it’s a fair, albeit sad, commentary that unless people are really angry or aggrieved against government they are willing to go along with prevailing trends or the status quo. 

Germany, following World War I, was a country in chaos; yet it had created and begun to exercise democratic institutions to govern itself.  Adolf Hitler was one of four candidates for the German presidency in 1932, and he received about 30 percent of the popular vote in that election.  No candidate received a majority, however; so a runoff election was held, and Hitler finished a distant second to the winner, Paul von Hindenburg.  The country’s political instability led to a parliamentary election soon after the presidential contest; and Hitler’s National Socialists (Nazis) became the largest, although not the majority, party.  The fractured parliament’s inability to govern led to Hitler’s appointment as the German Chancellor, which allowed him to consolidate power and become history’s most notorious dictator.

There are many lessons from the German example:  most importantly, that a highly motivated, passionate minority can overcome majority will to seize and exercise power.  Hitler and the Nazis never received much more than a third of the votes in national elections in the Weimar Republic, but they were able to gain a foothold by using the electoral process before resorting to violence and subversion to achieve total control.  Low voter turnout was not a problem in Germany, as more than 70 percent of the population cast their ballot.  Germany, however, became a dictatorship when citizens surrendered their power to choose their leaders through an electoral process that involved real choice.

I continue to believe voting matters and particularly so at the local level, where moneyed interests play a much smaller role in determining outcomes.  Voting is not a difficult task, although voting wisely may be.  Nonetheless, it is a proven tool for building the community consensus needed to accomplish collective goals.  It is also an individual’s right to have a say in the future of the place where he or she lives.  We should never give that up.