Outside the Whale: Democracy’s Decay


April 8 marked another election season without a contest. Four-hundred-twenty-eight voters participated. Bruce Rohr, a former member of the Conservation Commission and a core member of those who worked for the passage of the Community Preservation Act (CPA), is one of the few citizens who is worried enough about the lack of voter participation to try to change it. He is proposing on town meeting floor that the town election move from the spring to the fall, where the local ballot will be passed out with state, and in some years, federal election ballots and thus increase participation in the local elections.

tanya-willow1He told the Finance Committee on March 10 that the CPA was defeated during the local spring elections but passed when it was brought before the town during the fall election, when many more Canton voters come to the polls. He argues that greater wisdom exists within greater numbers. CPA money — because of the state’s growing match funding — is already leading to revived tennis courts at the high school, a project that the town could never otherwise consider.

However, selectmen and FinCom have argued that moving the election to the fall may expand the number of voters in the local election, but the new voters will not necessarily understand the local issues. In other words, they feel the April voter may be rare, but he is far more informed on the issues affecting the town than his fall voting counterpart. The arguments against moving the elections to the fall — which include the town clerk’s concern for the stress the longer hours might have on the aging poll worker — won the day and Rohr’s proposal will go before town meeting with no town committee support.

The argument that the April voter is a highly informed voter was supported in this past election. There was a fairly complex tax question that exempted the first $100,000 of business property value from being calculated in the CPA taxation formula (it’s already exempted for residents). Of the 428 voters, 265 voted in favor while 110 voted against it with only 53 blanks. That means that the voters this past April had a firm understanding of what the question was asking as evidenced by the lack of blanks at only 13 percent. The Canton Association of Business and Industry campaigned against the CPA tax when it was originally proposed by Rohr’s group, and the CPA tax was not supported by the Board of Selectmen and FinCom when it was originally proposed. (Individuals, like Selectman Victor Del Vecchio and then FinCom member Pat Johnson, did support it.) But on this April’s ballot question there was no opposition. The Canton Community Preservation Committee (CCPC) agreed that businesses in town should, just as residents currently do, have their first $100,000 of tax value exempted from the CPA property tax calculation. Thus 428 April voters sanctioned what the town leadership thought was best for all of Canton. Is it any wonder then that no town committee supports a change to the status quo?

But the current system leaves a disproportionate influence of local policy to a tiny fraction that is not demographically representative of Canton. It’s why “good taxes” like the CPA died a certain death in the April voting booth. The anti-tax sentiment of Canton’s older base combined by the significant influence the business community has on local officials was a hurdle too high for a tax like CPA. If it were not for the savvy of the CPA supporters like Rohr who cleverly brought the question before a larger fall voting audience, this May’s town meeting would not be voting to fix its tennis courts at the high school with the CCPC’s state-subsidized funds.

Two concerning studies recently conclude that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy. An April 18 story in The New Yorker quoted one conclusion on the loss of citizen influence on their government at the federal level that sounds much like the arguments against moving the town election to the fall:

Average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support …

Federally, the study finds that even if large voting majorities are against a policy, it will pass if it serves the interests of the country’s fiscal elite. In other words, laws, policies and deregulations, if it increases the profits of the mighty few, have virtually no chance of defeat.

Ironically, locally, where the participation is low across the state, voters still have a tremendous say over their government. Rather than being muted by money and influence, local voters have voluntarily forsaken their power. Democratic decay from lack of local participation should not be the worry of just Bruce Rohr. Even if the status quo outwardly keeps things predictable and steady, decay comes with inattention, and the decomposition of democracy can never be good. Whether moving the town election to November will revitalize the system is yet to be seen, but certainly the voting booths need more than 428 people, or the concentration of interests to a very few will continue to have a contracting affect on how community problems are heard and how they are solved.

As the political analyzers of the study in The New Yorker said, there may be some argument that elite rule is an informed rule and will not act to selfish ends, “but we tend to doubt it.”

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