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Upping voter turnout

June 17, 2005

After seeing voter turnout in what many thought would be a hotly contested Hagerstown election top out at 22.4 percent, it's a good time to think again about what would draw more citizens to the polls.

That's what representatives of the Washington County Board of Elections and party officials discussed recently, as they eyed changes other areas have made to boost turnout.

In our view, there are a number of things that might work, but the political parties need to do a better job of educating citizens about incumbents' records and challengers' experience. Based on their absence from the polls, too many voters obviously believe it doesn't matter who is elected.

The ideas being considered form other areas include:

-- "No-excuse" voting, which would reduce the number of restrictions on those who use absentee ballots.

-- Creating large "voting centers that would replace smaller centers now set up in places such as schools and fire halls.

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-- Initiatives for people to cast ballots early.

Of these three, we like the no-excuse option best. Voters who find polling place hours don't fit their schedule can cast ballots anyway.

The voting-center idea sounds good, because it would allow professional staff to supervise the process as opposed to volunteers.

However, aside from the expense, we believe there is something valuable about the sense of community created when those in a certain district vote at the local fire hall, for example.

Not only do volunteers get to know voters, but it's chance for those who are busy to see friends and neighbors they might not encounter otherwise.

Incentives for those who vote early might increase turnout, but the incentives would have to be such that people who hadn't been following the campaigns wouldn't vote just to get something.

Finally, proponents of a county council of governments recently argued that a COG is needed to keep officials in touch with the needs of their constituents.

It may be time for both the city and the county governments to consider electing officials by districts. It would be easier for an elected officials to to keep in touch with their constituents if the people who elected them were their neighbors.

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