Random thoughts in the wake of another local election
I think there may be a consistent theme here:
• It's a cliché to chastise the public about low voter turnout in local elections. So, I'm not going to scold anybody, but the paltry turnout numbers repeated on Tuesday raise several questions. Like, if so many of us complain about high property taxes, why do so few of us pay attention to the issues and races that most affect us; to wit: local school board and municipal races? Likewise, why don't more of us run for the offices that would let us see and influence the spending of these tax dollars ourselves?
• In this same vein, I'm often struck as a journalist with the seeming irony that many newspapers and news organizations consider their work to be central to supporting democracy, but covering democracy hardly supports news organizations. The Daily Herald devoted a major portion of our resources over the past few months to the coverage of local municipal and school board races. If we measured our success, or better yet structured our revenue model, on the breadth of our election coverage's reach, our accountants would be scratching their heads over why we devoted so much attention to matters of so little interest.
The voter turnout in the collar counties ranged from 12.2% in Kane County to a whopping 15.6% in DuPage County and 15.8% in Will County. Seeking to appeal to such a small portion of the suburban population clearly shows the Daily Herald serving the "fear God" and "tell the truth" legs -- and not the "make money" leg -- of our founder Hosea Paddock's famous motto.
• If you want a great visualization of the impact of low voter turnout, watch David Byrne's "American Utopia" concert and notice a visual demonstration in which he lights 20% of his audience to show that they're making the rules for the entire house, then points to the darkened 80% and says, "And these people? They're OK with that." Byrne talks about the demonstration in this one-minute interview on YouTube with Spike Lee, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrdd1yjESKU.
• By the way, people overwhelmingly say they want important news coverage about local government and schools. They overwhelmingly tell us they want positive stories about their communities and the people in them. Our news coverage is dominated by reports from local municipal and school boards, features on successful teachers and school programs and stories about neighbors reaching out to help each other or people who overcome great adversity. But watch how the readership numbers skyrocket when there is a sensational crime to report or an outrageous controversy.
• This, I assume, is why state and national politicians ignore what the polls say people want from their elected officials and instead build campaigns on pandering, promises they know they can't or won't keep and constant accusations about their opponents' conduct. Politicians have learned a lesson that we in the news business just can't bring ourselves to accept -- it's more profitable to give people what they demonstrate they want than what they claim to want.
• Which brings me back to local elections. I still stand by something I wrote a few weeks ago about local elected officials. By and large, they're a venerable lot, doing important, thankless work for little or no compensation. But it is always depressing to see how many local election campaigns are built on innuendo and conspiratorial complaints about opponents. Is this what it takes to get 15% of the voters to the polls? Would we shudder to see the turnout numbers if there were no such shenanigans?
Perhaps. But I'm still proud our focus remains on appealing to the small number of people who not only say they care about constructive reporting on our communities but actually demonstrate their commitment on Election Day.