Finding a voter in Crutcho can be almost as difficult as finding the community's downtown.
The unincorporated area in eastern Oklahoma County is home to about 900 registered voters. But in any given election, only a handful of people typically turn out to vote.
Experts say that low turnout could be a sign of a larger problem: a steady decline in civic involvement and the disconnect some voters may feel between themselves and the political system.
Only five voters in the district voted in a bond election Tuesday, in which $980,000 in school improvements were approved. Out of those five voters in Tuesday's election, two — Antonia Jennings and Paul Keeler — are members of the Crutcho School Board, according to Oklahoma County Election Board records.
Tuesday's showing isn't an exception, but part of a pattern of low voter turnout for local elections in the district, according to election board records. Just 10 people showed up to vote on school propositions in May 2011 and February 2010.
Although Tuesday's turnout was a bit smaller than usual, the district generally doesn't see more than a handful of voters in any local election, said Doug Sanderson, Oklahoma County Election Board secretary.
“Generally, not that many people vote out there,” he said.
As she bundled her granddaughter into her car in the parking lot of Crutcho School on Thursday afternoon, Karen Hollis admitted she didn't make it to the polls Tuesday.
Hollis said she thinks it's important to vote, and she generally tries to make it to the polls when she can. But Tuesday, doctor appointments kept her away. Besides, she said, she didn't know the bond issue was on the ballot. She hadn't heard anything about it from her granddaughter's school.
“Usually, if there's something big, they'll let me know,” she said.
Tim Gray, who served on the Crutcho school board for 12 years, said the district once included more homeowners. Today, it's mostly made up of rental properties and Section 8 housing, where there's a high turnover rate. Many of these people are Air Force service members at nearby Tinker Air Force Base and aren't in the area permanently. All this means many residents may not feel connected to the community or the school district, contributing to the low turnout, Gray said.
Gray, who was one of the five voters in Tuesday's election, said he's gotten used to seeing elections in the district attract only a few people. During one school board race in which he was a candidate, only 74 people voted.
“It's not uncommon for the Crutcho district to be low,” he said.
Getting message out
Crutcho resident Yvonne Yates said she thinks there could be several reasons for the low turnout. It's possible the school district simply isn't doing a good job getting the message out, she said. Voters in the area may also be disgruntled about the state of government overall and decide not to vote, she said.
“It could be any number of things,” she said.
Part of the problem also could lie in the way elections are conducted, said Richard Johnson, a political science professor at Oklahoma City University.
Oklahoma, like most states, holds several elections throughout the year. In 2013, the state has elections scheduled in every month except January and December. Spreading elections throughout the year means voters generally see one or two issues on most ballots, Johnson said.
If the state consolidated its elections so that voters saw a package of races and issues a few times a year, voters might be more willing to pay attention, he said.
“When you have elections on these off days, you're going to get lower turnout,” he said.
Kyle Harper, director of the University of Oklahoma's Institute for American Constitutional Heritage, said the low turnout in Crutcho points to the larger issue of declining civic engagement nationwide.
Younger voters look at the political landscape and see extreme party polarization, with radically competing alternatives and little hope for a consensus, Harper said.
That dynamic may leave voters with the impression that they can't make a difference in the country. That increase in cynicism makes people less likely to vote, he said.
“That goes from Washington down to the local level,” Harper said.
That level of cynicism is alarming, he said. When so few citizens exercise their right to vote, it undermines the legitimacy of the nation's political system, Harper said.
That trend is especially worrisome at the local level, he said. While dysfunction may reign in federal government and state governments often have problems of their own, municipal governments and school districts tend to be more effective.
If voters lose trust in those governments, it could spell larger problems, Harper said. “We've seen a steady, modest decline in voter participation over the last generation,” he said. “If people don't make their voice heard in that process, then it undermines the legitimacy of the system.”