Failing Grade

Sonoma County's voter turnout is low, but we can do better

For this latest primary, Sonoma County hit 50 percent turnout among registered voters. That is disappointing.

By all accounts, this election cycle is a referendum on Trump, police, housing, our watershed, education and wages, the very trajectory of our lives. Nobody lacks opinions on those topics, yet only half our registered voters chose November’s candidates, decided our sheriff, approved bonds, tolls and other measures. Unfortunately, 50 percent turnout is a typical primary for us.

Maybe primaries are misunderstood as practice, not “real.” After all, we average 80 percent turnout in general elections, eking out a B– grade in civic engagement. OK, I suppose, but even that’s a misrepresentation.

For me, the true indicator of democratic health is ballots cast compared to voting age population. Only two-thirds of Sonoma County’s voting population is registered, meaning those 50 percent and 80 percent registered turnouts above are dismal 37 percent and 57 percent actual turnouts, respectively.

This isn’t a jab at nonvoters. Of co-workers and friends I asked, all community members with reasonable opinions and legitimate desires to influence their future, half voted. Nonvoters are people—busy with lives, perhaps disengaged, but still deserving their voice.

As a project engineer at a local company, the basic tenets of my job are to trust solid data, trust stakeholders’ opinions and to work hard for both. Government shouldn’t be any different.

So how can Sonoma County become that ideal of representative democracy? For starters, our supervisors can actively register all residents as vote-by-mail with pre-stamped ballots. They can support more polling locations. Similar to jury duty, another civic responsibility, they can pay voters $10 for their time to cast ballots in primaries and general elections. They can advertise and hire staff dedicated to achieving full turnout among every demographic.

Against Sonoma County’s $1.6 billion budget, the price of these ideas total less than 1 percent. I can already hear the board’s response that with the wildfires and housing crisis, with pensions and appeals—not now, money is tight. To that I say, no time is better than now. We are living this too, and to truly represent our needs, you must hear us—all of us.

Iain Burnett lives in Forestville.

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Sonoma County Library