We demand locally sourced eggs at our breakfast place. We subscribe to CSA farms located a stone’s throw from our neighborhoods. Our grocer has signs in his aisles telling us the distance each product traveled to the shelf.
Local is in, big time. Except when it comes to making decisions about how our communities are run.
The April elections could only be described as dismal. Voter turnout in Madison was 30%, which actually isn’t bad for a spring election, but it compares to around 80% for a presidential contest. Still, 14 of 20 Madison Common Council seats went uncontested, and both school board seats up this year had only one candidate.
A massive $41 million Madison school referendum passed with over 80% of the vote and garnered no organized opposition. I voted for that referendum as I vote for all school referendums, but was it really healthy for the system to have no debate about it at all? A vocal and energetic opposition would have forced school officials to make their case in the short run and be more accountable in the long run.
As for the mayor’s race, it was not much of a race at all. That wasn’t for lack of trying by the candidates. Scott Resnick vigorously challenged incumbent Paul Soglin on his record, his approach to his job and his vision. Soglin fired back, and their debates were charged. It might have been a close race if anyone had been paying attention.
I don’t give us a pass for being distracted. Yes, there was the governor’s $300 million cut to the UW System, right-to-work legislation, the officer-involved shooting of Tony Robinson and the Badgers’ run to the NCAA championship game. And, yes, spring break happened right before the election.
But it doesn’t take long to vote, so you really could have stayed up late consoling yourself over the Badgers’ defeat and pulled yourself together enough the next day to make it to the polls. I did just that.
If it wasn’t distraction but indifference, then that is even worse. Some have argued that we’re simply content with the direction our community is taking. But I don’t see much evidence of that outside of our limp attitude toward local elections. The community is charged over race issues stemming from the Robinson shooting. Why didn’t we turn out to vote in big numbers for or against the candidates on that issue? We’re disgusted at the direction our state government is taking on a host of issues. Why didn’t we look at candidates’ records and willingness to articulate Madison’s vision against that of a reactionary state and turn out in large numbers to make our point? And as much as I support our public schools, $41 million is a lot of money. Why didn’t we question the numbers and show up in mass to vote for or against the ballot question? The “yes” vote got a high percentage of a small number of voters. I would have felt better about it if it had gotten a smaller percentage of a lot more voters because it would have been a stronger vote of support for the schools.
The number of contested local races, the closeness of those races and the turnout in spring elections are measures of civic health. We just had a checkup. It didn’t go well.