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Big O Endorses Voter Apathy

Editorial on turnout leaves readers scratching their heads

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Folks all over town are wondering what the editorial writers at the Charlotte Observer were thinking last week when they wrote that the low turnout in last Tuesday's primary election was a compliment to city government.

"Tuesday's turnout was low (8 percent), but maybe there's a good reason," a September 24 editorial in the Observer read. "

Apparently nothing about city government is upsetting voters enough to draw them to the polls in large numbers. Perhaps city government should consider the turnout a compliment."

Sure, that editorial was probably written in the wee hours of the morning after election returns came in, when the writer or writers probably weren't thinking all that clearly. It's also possible, in their likely fuzzy state of mind, that they could have forgotten what the paper had reported about low voter turnout just days before the election. Or maybe it's just that the Observer's editorial board, which has long backed a new uptown arena despite public anger over the issue, was looking for some kind of vindication in the results of this election. Either way, the conclusions the editorial drew were bizarre.

Needless to say, satisfaction with city government wasn't listed as a potential factor in an article the paper published just days before the election that explained why turnout would likely be low.

"One reason voters might stay home Tuesday is because they don't have much choice," the September 20 Observer article read. "Based on registration and history, each of the seven City Council districts heavily favors one party or the other, discouraging potential challengers from the other party."

The article also explained that the local parties don't sponsor organized voter-turnout drives like they do in general elections, and that "Compared with municipal races, turnout rises dramatically for presidential races, which fall on the normal November cycle, come attached to state races and prompt millions of dollars in campaign advertising."

But then, the paper's editorial writers have been explaining why low voter turnout happens in much the same way since at least April 1998, when they explained how the "partisan dominance" of the city's districts hurts voter turnout.

"As a result, the members of each district's minority party -- some 30 percent of the city's voters, in all -- are effectively disenfranchised," the paper's editorial writers opined. "This closed system favors incumbents, discourages competition and helps depress voter turnout."

When concluding that satisfaction with city government must be the reason for the low turnout in the September 23 election, the writer of the editorial also forgot to mention that turnout in Charlotte municipal primaries has been in the single digits for years, a fact they surely must be aware of, since they've been writing about it for years. Voter turnout in the 1999 city primary was 5 percent. In 2001, it was 6 percent. Yet as far as we can tell, the paper's editorial board didn't conclude that voters must be satisfied with city government in either of those races. In effect, this year's increase to 8 percent voter turnout actually meant that more, not fewer voters came out to register their opinion about city government at the polls.

The election's results also marked another milestone for the paper -- the first time it has reversed its editorial position that low voter turnout is a bad thing.

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