Who Votes in Local Elections?
IN THE SPRING OF 2009 only thirty-one residents of Golf, Illinois, voted in their village election. At first glance, this may seem like yet another example of the oft-heard complaint about civic apathy in the United States. Golfers, like many American citizens, were not living up to their civic responsibilities and, with such low turnout, the democratic legitimacy of their local government would be in question. In reality, however, it is unclear just how problematic this vote total actually was. Gerald Daus, the candidate elected as village president, ran unopposed and the only single vote he did not get from the thirty-one voters was for a write-in candidate. Moreover, it is not clear why anyone would run against him. In the years he had been managing village affairs, Daus had done a good job keeping the budget balanced and avoiding major tax increases. Most Golfers would appear to have been satisfied with the running of their town. So is the low electoral turnout in Golf or any other election in the United States really a sign of democratic failure?
To answer this question, we need to appreciate how deceptively slippery the concept of democracy is. The term initially appears to be quite simple: from the original Greek, “democracy” literally means rule (kratos) of the people (demos). But as one contemplates this notion, a host of difficult questions becomes apparent. Who are the people—all persons within a democracy’s domain or a select few? Among these, are the people a majority, a plurality, or a unanimity? How are they to rule? Will they elect representatives or do they need to ratify each decision? Is voting sufficient to make their preferences known or must they continually express themselves by other means?
Although philosophers have been grappling with these questions since the time of Aristotle, for most contemporary democratic organizations, these normative questions are answered in a prag