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Low voter turnout in Crutcho could be a sign of larger decline in civic engagement

Only five voters went to the polls in Crutcho for Tuesday's bond election. Experts say that low turnout undermines the legitimacy of the system.
by Silas Allen Published: November 17, 2013

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.”