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Romano: C'mon people, it can't be that hard to fill out a ballot

The turnout varied from a low of 16 percent in Kenneth City to a high of 38.3 percent in Indian Rocks Beach, but polling places throughout a dozen Pinellas County municipalities were disappointingly low last week.  [CLIFF MCBRIDE}
The turnout varied from a low of 16 percent in Kenneth City to a high of 38.3 percent in Indian Rocks Beach, but polling places throughout a dozen Pinellas County municipalities were disappointingly low last week. [CLIFF MCBRIDE}
Published Mar. 19, 2018

Pinellas County held municipal elections in a dozen cities last week, and barely 20 percent of the registered voters participated.

Somehow, the news manages to go downhill from there.

You see, another seven cities canceled their elections entirely because they didn't have enough candidates to field a competitive ballot.

Forgive me, but doesn't democracy deserve a little more effort than that?

I'm not trying to sound snotty or superior. To be honest, before sitting down to write, I had to double-check to make sure I hadn't embarrassed myself by missing my own local election in Oldsmar.

(Turns out, Oldsmar was among the cities that canceled its election.)

Now these percentages are neither surprising nor new. When compared to larger counties around the state, Pinellas actually has better turnout than most.

It's just that odd-year and local elections are typically hard sells. We can go from a 77 percent participation rate for a presidential election, to 57 percent for a gubernatorial election down to 27 percent, and worse, for municipal elections.

And that baffles me. You have a better chance of actually knowing the candidates in a local election. And you have a much greater chance of affecting the outcome of a race.

Just ask Deby Weinstein.

She won a seat on the Madeira Beach City Commission last week by a margin of 0.42 percent. If just three of her supporters had changed their vote, her opponent would have won.

Although this was her first time on the ballot, Weinstein has been involved in community efforts and politics for decades in Madeira Beach. And she is all too aware of the randomness of voter turnout.

She has gone door to door campaigning for candidates in the past, only to discover from postelection turnout reports that voters were not as engaged as they seemed.

"I would go to every house on the street and have these nice conversations about getting out to vote,'' Weinstein said. "And later I would look at the report and see there wasn't a single vote from that street. I would think, "What happened to them?' They all sounded like they were ready to vote.''

Typically in these municipal elections, the larger the city, the smaller the turnout. A lot of the beach communities, including Madeira, had participation rates in the mid 30s. Clearwater and Pinellas Park, meanwhile, were at 17.1 and 17.2 percent turnout, which dragged down the county average.

"We're not surprised because it's not a new phenomenon for municipal elections,'' said Pinellas Deputy Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus. "We just wish people better understood the instrumental role local government plays in their everyday lives.

"A representative democracy only thrives if we have voter participation. There are a lot of folks in the world who do not have what we have, and wish they did.''

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Voting is often portrayed as a duty or a responsibility. Really, it is our job. It is the only job most of us have in the political process. Once or twice a year, we are tasked with spending a handful of minutes filling out a ballot. Honestly, it can't be that hard.

In fact, of the 31,088 people who participated in last week's elections, only 5,409 actually showed up at the polls. That means nearly 26,000 took advantage of mail ballots.

When you look at it that way, we can all participate in one of the most important roles in society without going any farther than the end of the driveway.

Next time, I promise to pay more attention.

Maybe even before the election.