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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Election is time to be engaged

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: October 17, 2021, 6:02am

As you might or might not be aware, this is election season. Election Day is Nov. 2, when results from local races for city councils and school boards and port commissions and a handful of other contests will start rolling in.

Within a few days after that, we should know who will be in office and making important local decisions. Local officials, after all, set taxes and have a say in what our kids read in school and determine the Port of Vancouver’s response to climate change. These are important policies, even if we don’t give them much thought, and they help determine the quality of life in Clark County.

As Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told The Columbian’s Editorial Board a few years ago: “The thing that’s frustrating is that voters turn out in droves for the presidential election, for a whole host of reasons. The president of the United States doesn’t really affect your daily life that much.”

But for an off-year election with no federal offices on the ballot, we can expect about one-third of registered voters in Clark County to turn in a ballot. In 2017, the most recent election to come one year after a presidential election, turnout in our region was 30.9 percent; officially, 84,258 voters participated, and the county then had 272,792 registered voters. And that doesn’t count people who were eligible but didn’t register.

Of course, part of American democracy is that we have the right to vote — or not vote. Suit yourself. But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt reputedly said, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

And while we could spend an entire column or three writing about the threats to democracy from twice-impeached President Donald Trump and his supporters — remember, they literally tried to overthrow the government — for now the focus is on local elections.

Prior to the August primary, The Columbian’s Editorial Board held remote interviews with candidates for local office, before their races were narrowed to two candidates. We then added a few more interviews in recent weeks for races that had only two candidates from the start. Unedited videos of those interviews are available online, and we have written editorials providing recommendations to voters.

These are a more important function of a community newspaper than weighing in on, say, a presidential contest. When the Editorial Board recommends a candidate for president, the odds are that we are not going to change anybody’s mind; voters are intimately familiar with the candidates. But those running for local office have not spent months plastered all over the news, and in many parts of the country there is a dearth of local media covering their races.

As the centrist Brookings Institution wrote in 2019: “The local news crisis has also precipitated a general disengagement from local democratic life. As Americans have shifted away from local news, turnout in state and local elections has fallen, and communities that have lost reporters have seen fewer candidates run for local office.”

That brings up some interesting fallout from an age when democracy is under attack — a handful of candidates always decline to meet with the Editorial Board. That is their choice, but it does not seem to be a good campaign strategy; for low-profile races, taking advantage of The Columbian’s platform is a good way to improve your name recognition and share your thoughts with voters.

In a phone conversation, one candidate told me, “Let’s face it, there’s no way in hell you’re going to endorse me.” We know now that he was right about that, but he still may have been able to sway some voters.

All of which adds to the drama of election season.

While encouraging citizens to be engaged with local elections can be a Sisyphean task, it plays a role in creating the kind of community in which we want to live. And isn’t that whole point of voting?