Report by Paula Antolini, April 30, 2019, 7:50AM EDT
OPINION / LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Voter participation in town budget referendums is often used to illustrate citizen apathy.
Bethel’s recent budget vote was decided by 21% of eligible voters and could be interpreted as an alarming failure of democracy. However, I believe that, when contrasted to the 39% voter turnout of the 2017 municipal election, participation in the April 11th referendum was quite good.
Consider the following: In contrast to a standard formula like “the first Tuesday in November” for elections, annual budget votes are “movable feasts” that are held on whatever day of the week the legislative body decides. Everyone knows the date of next Christmas, however, not so for next Easter.
Bethel’s next budget vote will be on Tuesday, May 7th. This lack of schedule standardization makes it easy for voters to simply be unaware of which day of the week voting will take place.
Municipal elections guarantee hyper involvement of major and minor political parties, Enormous amounts of human effort and money are expended in order to to “get out the vote.”
Compare the number of radio ads advertising election campaign with what you hear for a budget referendum. Consider the hundreds of yard signs that populate roadsides for two the months between Labor Day and Election Day compared with yard signs pertaining to the budget.
Think of all the first-class direct mailings sent out for a November vote with the single Postcard Referendum Notice sent by the First Selectman, a practice that is a direct result of the BAC’s “All or None” initiative in 2012.
So, before we bemoan that only 20% of eligible voters turn up to vote in budget referenda, we might celebrate how the automatic referendum has exponentially increased citizen participation in the budget process.
Prior to the formation of the Bethel Action Committee in 1986, annual town budgets were decided at the Annual Town Meeting by a voice vote – with approximately 2% of the towns eligible voters in attendance! Compare that to today when many more participate given a tiny fraction of the effort expended by political factions during elections.
Citizen participation is always found to be wanting, however, currents of thought are moved along by small numbers of deeply committed individuals.
I hope that, regardless of voter turnout, the majority of deeply-committed Bethel taxpayers will vote to keep Bethel affordable for everybody by rejecting the proposed budget on Tuesday, May 7th.