'Strong Thoughts: Is voter apathy overtaking our community?
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
May 11, 2014 | 664 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I am disappointed in roughly 80 percent of Bradley County’s registered voters.

That number is close to the percentage of those who did not vote in the May 6 primary elections.

A pitiful 19.95 percent of Bradley County’s registered voters cast their votes in the recent primaries, according to the unofficial results (results that were not yet certified at the time of this writing) released by the Bradley County Election Commission.

That was only 13,242 people voting in a county that boasts a population of 101,848, per the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 estimate.

As a newspaper reporter, I see the impacts of voting each day. Many of the people who hold influence over the affairs of Bradley County, and the city of Cleveland that lies within its boundaries, are elected officials. Like it or not, the decisions elected officials make affect their communities.

Because of that, it is important to elect good leaders.

However, a county having a low number of voters means there are fewer people making the decisions of who will be the ones to lead. Ideally, those in leadership positions should share the views of the majority of a location’s citizens. That becomes less of a possibility when the majority of a location’s citizens do not vote.

The No. 1 reason I have heard people give for not voting in the recent primary is that they were too busy.

Having the job that I do, I know what it was like to have a busy schedule. Still, I make voting a priority because I believe my vote does ultimately matter.

Bradley County residents had from April 16 to May 1 — two weeks — for early voting at three different locations before the May 6 election day.

I took advantage of that when casting my own vote. I chose to vote at Bradley Square Mall during a weekday lunch hour, close to noon. To my surprise, it took me only about 10 minutes from start to finish because there were so few people voting at that time, and I already knew who would be getting my votes. I even had time to go buy a cute new pair of shoes afterward.

Because I was already registered to vote, I only had to show the poll workers my driver’s license and say whether I wanted a Democratic or Republican ballot before I was able to access a voting machine.

Regardless of who should or should not have won the primary races, the fact remains that only 19.95 percent of those who were already registered to vote actually showed up at the polls.

Other reasons people have given for not voting have been not knowing who to vote for or not caring about the primaries because they only like to vote in national elections.

The issue with both of those reasons is that they represent a larger problem I have noticed in Bradley County: apathy.

Many people just simply seem to lack interest in the same local affairs that affect them whether they like it or not.

While on the job, I have attended many government meetings that are routinely open to the public, and have time set aside for public comments. When attendees of, say, a Bradley County Commission meeting are asked if they have anything they want to say, there are often times when nobody chooses to speak.

This past week, I attended an executive board meeting of the Cleveland Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. The group was discussing changes to some transportation-related plans, and the only people from outside the board who showed up were the mayor of Calhoun and his staff.

Some of the matters being discussed had been made available for public comment since March, and the organization’s coordinator made a point of saying that nobody had said anything about the matters being discussed — nothing negative, nothing positive. His tone of voice made him sound incredulous. I was puzzled too.

Though they may not have been controversial matters, the organization voted on how to spend taxpayers’ money. They voted to buy new public buses and allocate more money to a road-widening project.

Whether or not someone had attended the organization’s previous meeting, summaries of what had been discussed were published in this newspaper in the form of legal notices, and the Cleveland city government also made the information available on its website.

What is written on paper and presented in meetings can impact a number of things in a community, and how money gets spent is just one example.

People in some countries long for the freedom we Americans have to attend public meetings, read more about what is presented in those meetings, speak about the issues important to us and vote in primaries and general elections. It’s a shame that some of us do not act like we appreciate the opportunities we have.

How can our leaders know what their citizens want if the citizens don’t tell them? How can things change for the better if we don’t know what is happening in the first place? 

More people in Bradley County need to start looking for reasons to care. Hopefully, we will all look for ways to stay informed about what is happening in our local governments and make plans to vote when the next chance to vote comes in August.