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Editorial: Voter turnout can change

Imagine a community where residents overwhelmingly don’t participate in the process of selecting leaders, but they’re ready to rise up when they begin to notice problems.

Instead of aiming for prescriptive solutions to problems, the community’s residents are content to react where needed.

That imagined community is our reality.

Electronically available voter turnout rates for Salisbury’s municipal elections barely top 40 percent at the peak. That record — 40.5 percent turnout —belongs to anyone and everyone who voted in Salisbury’s 1983 municipal elections. A total of 4,232 of Salisbury 10,446 registered voters participated in the municipal elections at the time.

Our Salisbury City Council either matters a lot less in the 21st century or apathy is a significant problem. Voter turnout rates have steadily declined in the three decades since 1983. In 2013, an embarrassing 13.41 percent of Salisbury’s registered voters participated in municipal elections. The 2011 municipal elections in Salisbury weren’t much better — an equally embarrassing 14.89 percent.

To put the turnout numbers in perspective, 20,747 people were registered to vote in Salisbury during the 2013 elections. A grand total of 2,783 turned out to vote in 2013 and about 3,000 in 2013.

Understandably, candidates may only want to cater to a certain segment of the voting population. If only certain people participate, you’re sure to win. If the entire community is involved in the electoral process, however, the end result is one that more accurate represents the will of the people.

To be clear, this problem exists across the United States in every local election. Presidential election years traditionally draw the highest turnout rates of all elections in every city, county and state.

In Salisbury, however, voter turnout numbers aren’t just low, but they also don’t reflect Salisbury’s demographics. About 60 percent of the city’s voters are black, but in the 2013 and 2011 Salisbury municipal elections, about 20 percent of voters were black.

During election season, it’s partially our job  — the newspaper — to make voters care and turn out to vote. The responsibility also falls on political parties and candidates, which are needed to rally their base. Political parties are vital during major elections. If you’re registered to a particular party, you’ll undoubtedly receive a plethora of fundraising letters, emails and phone calls. Parties also spent a boatload of money on advertising and candidates benefit.

During municipal election years, that’s not the case. It’s rare to see political parties intervene in local races.

How does it all change? How does the embarrassing and sharp decline in municipal voter turnout change?

Candidates must thoroughly engage all segments of their community and make voters care about the race. You want to get rid of Salisbury’s police chief? Tell voters why that matters and how it would affect them. Otherwise, the rhetoric falls into the white noise of politics that so often fails to attract enough attention to change turnout rates.

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