Our view: Enthusiasm for our community can overcome apathy
August 23, 2014
"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."
— Robert M. Hutchins American educator and writer
In June, the state of California saw a record low turnout of voters for the statewide direct primary election, amounting to a mere 18.3 percent of registered voters. Of course, here in Nevada County, as we typically do, we easily surpassed the state turnout.
However, at just 44.6 percent of registered voters casting their ballot, Nevada County's numbers were also down from previous primary elections. In 2012, the county saw 51.6 percent of registered voters for the June primary. In 2010, the turnout was 51.1 percent.
But other signs of apathy are in the air, evidenced by this week's report on a lack of candidates for 18 elected seats in our community.
Does it matter? Does your vote count? Of course it does. The 2000 Presidential election saw Bush beat Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes out of 6 million cast, resulting in his election to the presidency. Closer to home, the 2002 Nevada County Board of Supervisors election saw Drew Bedwell edge Bruce Conklin by just 19 votes out of the 6,907 votes cast.
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Votes count. Your vote counts. Yes, most of the elected offices we're voting on this year in Nevada County are local rather than national. But think about it. Who has the most impact on your day-to-day life? It's members of the school board who make crucial decisions that affect your children and grandchildren's education. It's members of your water district board who are responsible for water treatment and storage decisions for your neighborhood. These might not sound like the most glamorous elected offices, but few elected officials make more directly impactful decisions on your family's life than these fellow citizens.
In June, Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen won reelection over Paul Haas by 1,025 votes, among the 21,481 cast. Dan Miller won the District 3 Supervisor seat by 273 of 4,887 total votes over incumbent Terry Lamphier.
But again, fewer than half the registered voters in Nevada County cast their ballot.
Considering the low local turnout has mostly been in primary elections — including nonpresidential primaries in 2010 and again this year — it's not surprising the percentage of voters doesn't favorably compare to November general elections, for which Nevada County has traditionally shown much stronger turnout. For example, in November 2012, 82.9 percent of registered voters voted in Nevada County. In 2008, 87.9 percent turned out for the presidential general election. And even in an "off-year" general election of November 2010, the turnout totaled 80.7 percent.
We hope to see a similar strong showing Nov. 4.
But Thursday's edition of The Union offered reason for concern that an apparent lack of interest in election day might extend well beyond recent trends in lower voter turnout. (With California's "top-two" approach there is no longer a traditional primary election between party nominees). Thursday's front page story "Candidate-less in Nevada County" discussed the fact that we have 18 seats in various local offices with no candidates running to fill them.
That's a chilling statistic because these are positions that truly matter.
As an example, a number of these empty seats are on local water district boards. California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record, yet no one stepping forward to fill these seats. In North San Juan, we reported that water resources are so challenging that people are stealing water from the local fire department.
We all know how devastating it could be if we are faced with a wildfire and firefighters don't have the water necessary to protect us. Water conservation and management has likely never been as important as it is today.
Three more seats are open on the Rough and Ready Fire Protection District. Another three are for the Bear River Recreation and Park District.
Two vacancies each are in the Oak Tree Community and Recreation District and in the Washington County Water District. And the Higgins Area Fire Protection District, the Peardale-Chicago Park Fire District, Mystic Mine Road Community Services District and Western Gateway Recreation and Park District each have a vacant seat without a candidate. The Area 5 seat on the Nevada Joint Union High School District Board of Trustees, which oversees more than 3,100 students in the community, has no candidate seeking to fill it.
We understand that people are busy, trying to make ends meet for their families. We understand that many of these positions are largely volunteer, requiring members to log many hours reading agenda packets in order to be prepared for discussions and decisions. And we understand that stepping forward to take on such responsibility often seems a thankless task.
But for a community full of passionate people who so often freely speak their minds and share their opinions on what's best for western Nevada County, one would hope we would see such energy put into action through service on a local board.
We thank all candidates who have come forward to serve the community. We encourage those who have thought about doing so to get involved and consider running for one of these offices — or encourage someone they know to do so. Some may think they don't have the skills or knowledge for public service. We encourage you to talk to folks who are currently filling these seats.
We bet almost all of them will tell you how rewarding the experience has been, how much they've learned in the process and how great it feels to make a difference.
"Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice."
— Arnold Toynbee, English economic historian and social reformer
This editorial represents the views of The Union Editorial Board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff and informed members of the community.