By Tim Burke
A few years ago, I watched amazed as an international observer of the first municipal elections in postwar Bosnia. My polling place was an old schoolhouse, near a still active minefield. The run-up to the election had been tense. A grenade had blown up a parked car belonging to the election organizers. Soldiers guarded election headquarters, and occasionally a peacekeeper's tank would rumble down the road.
If there were ever a reason to stay home, this was it. But when the polls opened, voters came in droves. Of the 980 registered voters for this polling place, 97 percent voted.
Observers of elections in other emerging democracies tell similar stories.
Yet in this, the greatest democracy in the world, with the presidency at stake this November, we will be lucky to top a 50 percent turnout (and that is of registered voters).
Last year, 90 races for local office in Hamilton County went uncontested, and another eight had no candidate at all. This year, the Republicans offer no candidate for two House districts, and my Democratic Party left three county offices unchallenged and fielded no candidate for any of a dozen judicial positions.
Why do we go begging for candidates and voters? The causes are not entirely clear. The solutions may be more difficult still. But some observations can be made.
We have an increasingly cynical electorate. Non-participants argue "my vote doesn't matter" or "the money controls what happens anyway." For some, the excuse is more selfish still. "I don't register to vote because I don't want to be called for jury duty."
"My vote doesn't matter" is just dead wrong. The political landscape is littered with candidates who lost public office by an amazingly small number of votes.
Money, "the mother's milk of politics," is a problem. Most people involved in politics say raising money is distasteful. Post-Watergate reforms at least provide the public the ability to know who is paying the bills.
Unfortunately, under Ohio law, it is true that if you do not register to vote you are not called for jury duty. That should be changed. Voter registration rolls may be a convenient way to call citizens to jury duty, but so would Bureau of Motor Vehicle or income tax records.
Traditionally, party structures were built on a neighborhood precinct-by-precinct basis. While some of the old ward clubs remain strong, the healthy ones are far fewer today than they used to be. Keeping in mind the wisdom of former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill that "all politics is local," both parties must strengthen their connection to the grass roots by reinvigorating their neighborhood organizations and responding to local, as well as national, issues.
Thanks to the presidential campaign, both parties are experiencing the quadrennial influx of many new activists. The struggle will be to transfer that energy from presidential politics to less glamorous races for county coroner or village clerk or local school board.
Attracting candidates is a challenge for all parties. The power of incumbency, the name recognition and fund-raising ability that come with it, work to discourage challengers.
Making it even more difficult is how districts are drawn for many offices. Lines have been drawn in such a way that demographically one party's candidate is the overwhelming favorite. That political reality was no more crassly expressed than two years ago when an aide to the speaker of the Ohio House noted with regard to one redrawn district "we took 13,000 African-Americans out and put 14,000 Republicans in." Here in Hamilton County, with eight state House seats, three state Senate seats, and two congressional districts, arguably only two of the House seats and perhaps the First Congressional can generally be regarded as competitive.
Still, the parties must strive to find candidates to run even in those races where the odds of success may be long. We do not have a Democratic candidate for county prosecutor this year. Could such a candidate defeat Republican incumbent Mike Allen? Maybe not, but wouldn't we benefit from public debate of the high rate of death penalty prosecutions, or the use of the prosecutor's office as a political base?
Most frustrating is the lack of judicial candidates. Of the 42 judges in Hamilton County, there are only five Democrats. In recent years, well-financed, qualified Democrat candidates, such as Darlene Kamine, Bruce Whitman and Ed Felson, not only lost, but lost big. And solid incumbent judges like Marianna Brown Bettman and Deborah Gaines were defeated.
To run a serious campaign for judge, a lawyer must take enormous time away from his or her practice. Economically, that is tough to do. It also means running against a judge in front of whom the lawyer might some day have to appear on behalf of a client. That should not make a difference, but it does. A couple of years ago, we had an extraordinarily well-qualified attorney ready to run when his partner came to him with just that message: "If you run, you will hurt the clients we represent when we have to appear in front of your opponent." That was the end of his candidacy.
There are those who argue that we should appoint, not elect, judges. Merit selection will continue to be debated. Still, I like elected judges. They profit by being required to campaign, learning from and interacting with people on the campaign trail.
Nobody said democracy was easy. The issues faced by the parties and our country are many. But democracy must be a participatory, occasionally rough-and-tumble, exercise. The presidential election will engage many voters. For the parties, the challenge will be to carry that involvement beyond Nov. 2.
Cincinnati attorney Tim Burke is chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
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