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Sinking turnout by voters should spark discussion of ways to fix the problem

Americans are accustomed to the system of checks and balances built in to their governing structures by the Constitution: Co-equal branches of government monitor the others to create something like accountability.

In Erie County, however, voters are abandoning the most fundamental check they have on how their government functions: The votes they cast. Or, as was the case in this month’s elections, the votes they didn’t cast. This year’s voter turnout was so low that only 9 percent of the county’s eligible voting population provided the majority that gave a second term in office to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. It’s not only pitiful, but hazardous to the health of democracy.

In fact, when only 24.5 percent of registered voters show up, as occurred in Erie County, the process is democracy in name only. It’s certainly not majority rule, but rule by the majority that was interested enough to show up. Is this what Benjamin Franklin warned about when, at the birth of the Constitution, he observed to a questioner that the Founders had produced not a monarchy, but a republic – “if you can keep it”?

It’s a serious enough problem that government needs to pay attention, understanding that treatments are available. Officials don’t have to go as far as the prescription in Australia, where failure to vote is punishable by fine and even imprisonment, though it seems to work: Turnout there never seems to fall below 90 percent.

Short of that, though, it’s worth considering changing the dates on which Americans, including New Yorkers, vote. There is nothing sacrosanct about the first Tuesday after the first Monday, an outgrowth of the country’s 19th century agrarian economy. It may have made sense then, but does it now? Plainly not, if a different day would encourage more registered voters to perform the one essential civic function that is theirs.

There is also the question of who is registered to vote and whether that should be made easier. It wouldn’t entirely solve problems such as this year’s low turnout, since 75.5 percent of registered voters didn’t bother and it is fair to wonder how motivated those who don’t even register could possibly be. Nevertheless, some proportion of those voters would make the effort, potentially improving turnout on Election Day.

One strategy that would almost certainly boost turnout would be to hold local elections in even-numbered years, with their higher turnouts for presidential and congressional races. Local politicians might be afraid of getting lost in the national political noise, but those are also years that voters pay more attention to politics generally. Additionally, ending odd-year elections would have the benefit of saving the money it costs to hold the election.

Even for an off-year election, turnout this year was dismal, and dramatically down even from four years ago, when 42 percent of voters cast ballots in the county executive race. In 1987, it was 67 percent and in 1960, the county posted an Australian-like 92 percent.

Of course, voting doesn’t guarantee good government and it is corrupted in ways, including campaign finance laws and gerrymandered districts, that deprive voters of a real choice. But even those repairs begin with a committed voting population, one that cares about its obligations and will insist on representatives who pay more attention to them than they do to donors or party bosses.

The trend on voter turnout is ominous. We dismiss it at our peril.