Most voters in Juneau stay away from polls

Turnout at Tuesday's municipal election near the record low

Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fewer than one in four Juneau residents showed up to vote on election day. Combined with absentee ballots, Tuesday's municipal election had a near-record low turnout of about 29 percent.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Election night returns showed a 22.6 percent turnout, but an additional 1,500 absentee and questioned ballots counted Friday are expected to bring the total close to 29 percent.

Mayor Bruce Botelho called the lack of voter participation "alarming," and offered two possible explanations.

"It may well reflect that people are generally satisfied with their local government, or preoccupied with other things," he said.

Candidate Karen Lawfer said she was saddened by the low turnout.

"People don't feel the need to vote for one reason or another," she said. "It would be wonderful if we had 50 or 60 percent" turnout.

In other countries, Botelho said, citizens have to face death threats and overcome fraud to make their vote count.

"We're reading reports of other parts of the world where people are fighting and dying for the right to exercise some control over their government," he said.

Lawfer agreed that more Juneau residents should take more active roles in their elections.

"The thought of not voting to me, I just would not be able to sleep at night," she said.

State elections program manager Jonathan O'Quinn has been watching municipal elections around the state, and said Juneau's turnout was better than many.

In many municipal elections, he said, voter turnout hinges on emotional ballot measures.

"For some reason, ballot questions have more voter interest than candidate elections," O'Quinn said.

It has worked that way in Juneau.

Voter turnout topped 40 percent in 2007 when a controversial measure rejected fluoride in city water.

And the highest turnout in recent years came in 2000 when voters were asked in a non-binding measure their preference on the divisive road versus ferry matter. Voters narrowly favored ferries in that election, which saw a turnout of more than 49 percent.

Botelho said voters have a right to not vote as well, but questioned whether not doing so was good for the city.

"The higher the participation, the higher the legitimacy of the institution," he said.

The decision by 70 percent or more of the city's voters to not participate "suggests a degree of complacency that's alarming, but obviously people don't see the life and death issues," he said.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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