Fighting voter apathy

Moffat County voters will head to the polls to have their say on who the next president will be, but that's about the only thing that brings them out en masse.

The county's highest charted voter turnout in the past 12 years was in the 1992 general election when voters put Bill Clinton in the White House. That year, 73 percent of the county's registered voters queued up for time in the booth.

That was a rare response, Moffat County's Chief Deputy Clerk Lila Herod said. Traditional voter turnout is much lower, averaging 34 percent for a 10-year span.

"That's very low," Moffat County Clerk and Recorder Elaine Sullivan said. "People seem very apathetic. They think their vote doesn't mean anything."

Though voters demonstrate interest in who the next president is, they usually don't get excited until the general election. Presidential primary elections don't bring voters in droves. In fact, Moffat County's lowest voter turnout ever, 10 percent, was in the 2000 primary election.

Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League, said democracy has changed a lot in the last 200 years -- not necessarily for the better.

"The data tell us democracy is in trouble in this country -- voting is down and participation is down," he said.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were expected to turn the nation around. Experts predicted voter turnout would triple. Instead, it remained average at 37 percent.

"That's an amazingly low number," Gates said.

Gates attributes poor turnout not to apathy, but to anger.

"It's very difficult to find apathetic people," he said. "Nobody says 'I just don't care.' What you find are people who say 'my vote doesn't matter, my voice isn't heard, my concerns aren't those of elected officials.'"

He blames the national media for feeding people's anger and feelings of helplessness.

"The media has gone past the notion of keeping politicians honest to feeding the anger," he said. "They think it's their job to bring people down, discover the negative and dig deeper and deeper."

Sullivan also blames media for low voter turnout, but in a different way.

She says media polls and up-to-the-minute announcements on vote tallies feed peoples' belief that their votes won't make a difference.

Changing citizen views needs to start with elected officials, Gates said.

Today's leaders have to be listeners instead of talkers, he said.

But, the first step in getting there is voting -- a concept that people either feel very passionately about or ambivalent.

Moffat County resident Nathan Newkirk isn't sure whether he's registered to vote or not.

He thinks he probably signed up when he got his driver's license, but can't be positive. He blames his disinterest on the quality of candidates.

"There's noboby usually that is interesting enough to vote for," he said.

LuAnne Jones, a 23-year Moffat County resident, is the opposite. She almost never misses voting.

"If things aren't going right in any type of government -- state, national or Craig -- it would be my own fault if I didn't vote," she said.

Jones said it disappoints her when people don't participate in the democratic process.

"Maybe they think how things are going is fine or that what they want is what the majority is going to vote for," she said.

Herod said the problem isn't the amount of people who are registered to vote, it's the number of people who make it to the polls.

This year, the clerk's office is taking a drastic step in an attempt to make voting less confusing.

With the exception of Browns Park, Hamilton and Dinosaur, all residents in all Moffat County precincts will vote in one place -- at the Centennial Mall.

That, Herod said, should dispel some election-day confusion and hopefully get people to the polls who don't vote because they don't know where to go.

Sullivan said she encourages people to vote early, so they don't have to wait in line.

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