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What we do know about the election

The election comes to a close on Tuesday evening. The polls, open since early voting began on Oct. 15, close at 7:30 p.m. We’ll know shortly thereafter who the next mayor of Chapel Hill is and the changes the voters approved in the composition of the town council and the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. We’ll know whether the incumbents in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Pittsboro and Carrboro kept their jobs. These are the things we don’t know.

What we do know is that, judging from the early vote totals, it’ll be another year of anemic turnout. Most of the voters, including those who very enthusiastically showed up to cast their ballots last year, are likely to stay home.

Sadly, the fervor we see for the democratic process doesn’t seem to make it into the odd-year elections. It’s also likely that without a presidential race at the top of the ticket, next year’s federal elections are also going to be lackluster.

We can’t make you vote. It’s still a voluntary act with no downside for non-participation. Even the old adage that if you don’t vote you can’t complain doesn’t apply. We’ve met plenty of people over the years who feel quite comfortable cursing a blue streak over local government while acknowledging that they had no role in its selection.

Nonchalance about voting is a terrible legacy to pass on to your children, especially since they will be the ones inheriting whatever future the officials ushered in by a single-digit percentage of the populace decide they should have.
We chalk much of this steady erosion of the value we place on enfranchisement as a damning indictment of the decline of civic education. Remember when citizenship was vigorously taught rather than passed on from one generation to another without comment?

Small wonder that we have such a high percentage of cranky, ill-mannered and woefully under-informed non-participants. For more than two decades, they’ve been spoon-fed Ronald Reagan’s toxic tonic that government is inherently bad — always the problem and not the solution. All along, there’s been almost nothing offered to counter that argument, because it’s just not cool to point out that things like roads, public transit, schools and institutions like the university and its hospital came about because of a belief in the idea of government, and that by working together we could make a better world.

Now, as a people, we seem to lack the collective knowledge to even discuss the once-sacred social compact like adults. It’s why some people can get away with blaming the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression on sub-prime mortgages rather than an unregulated casino culture on Wall Street. It’s why our health care debate focuses not on the growing ranks of the uninsured, but on preserving the highly profitable insurance companies that enjoy exemption from anti-trust regulations and whose lobbyists basically write the laws that govern them.

We need better civic education here, there and everywhere in this country or we will continue to reap this bitter harvest of ignorance, cynicism and greed.

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