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I live in St. Louis County, where an estimated 21 percent of registered voters cast ballots in last week’s primary election. That turnout was somewhat better than the last two primaries. In 2008, only about 18 percent showed up, and in 2006, it was less than 16 percent.
Some might celebrate the higher turnout this year, but I won’t be among them – because even with a greater percentage voting this year, we are still faced with the fact that an estimated 500,000-plus County residents decided voting in the primary was not worth their time. Let me repeat that: Somewhere around a half-million St. Louis County voters, given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process, decided they had something better to do. This story was not isolated to St. Louis County. Vast majorities in St. Louis City, Jefferson and St. Charles Counties also skipped voting last week.
If you’re one of the non-voters, you might argue that primaries don’t matter – that the candidates with the best name recognition win, and your vote would not make a difference. I could debate that point, but my concern with the low turnout in primary elections is broader than the candidates who move on to the general election. My concern includes the fact that, occasionally, there are matters on the primary ballot that are unique to that ballot – like this year’s Proposition C.
That measure was approved last week by a significant margin, which means Missouri has now rejected portions of the health care reform law that Congress passed earlier this year. Opponents of Proposition C argue that none of this matters, that the courts will eventually reject the measure, because federal law trumps state law. But the supporters of the measure don’t seem to care. Their plan appears to be anchored in perception and momentum, not in the validity of what they approved.
Ours was the first state to vote on a measure like this one, and the backers of similar measures in other states are counting on Prop C’s victory to gin up enthusiasm for their cause.
What bothers me most about all this is not the actual set of issues at stake with Proposition C. What bothers me most is that – once again – in St. Louis County, where I live, 500,000 voters did not make their voices heard. Let me put that number in context. After the primary election, this radio station reported that nearly 939,000 Missouri voters chimed in on Proposition C, with 71 percent voting “yes.” Do the math and you’ll find there were approximately 400,000 more “yes” votes than there were “no” votes. Now compare that number to the 500,000 St. Louis County residents who did not vote at all. Do you see where I’m going with this? There are about 100,000 more people in St. Louis County who did not vote than there were in the entire, statewide margin of victory for Proposition C.
That disparity should be embarrassing for all St. Louis County residents and every other jurisdiction in the state where there was low voter turnout.
It’s time voters grow up, stand up, and be counted: during general and primary elections; in presidential and congressional contests; on votes with national, state, and local implications. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and our democracy to make our voices heard – at every single opportunity we’re given.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.