Why don't city residents vote?

November 18, 2004

Hagerstown City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot, disappointed by the low turnout in recent city elections, this week suggested that the date of city elections be moved so that they coincide with the presidential elections.

His colleagues aren't enthusiastic, but there ought to be some way to deal with his concerns.

There's no doubt that some spark of inspiration is needed. In the 2001 Hagerstown election, only 3,049 of the city's 18,264 registered voters - about 16.7 percent - cast ballots.

It's only speculation, but the low turnout may be related to the fact that the majority of the city's residents rent rather than own their dwellings. Compared to homeowners, renters usually have a short-term commitment to the places where they live.

But the other reason for low turnouts may be that almost 20 years ago, the city changed from a system in which members of the council were elected from wards instead of at large, as they are now.


The push for an at-large system came because many felt that some council members in office then were only interested in their own wards and not in the concerns of the city as a whole.

But when there's a problem in one part of the city, it helps if there's a member of the council living there. For example, prior to the election of thecurrent council, some members doubted that crime and "cruising" were a problem in the city's East End.

No less a leader than Thomas Jefferson said the "government closest to the people serves the people best."

Perhaps it's time to look again at whether returning to the ward system would bring more citizen interest in what local government is doing.

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