Long Island residents bear a tremendous tax burden. So, when the editorial staff at TBR News Media report low voter turnouts for local elections, we are constantly puzzled. Why are people not voting?
A recent example is the Sept. 10 special election in the Setauket Fire District where commissioners were looking for the go-ahead to buy four new pumper trucks. While the vote wasn’t one that would immediately result in higher taxes like a bond vote, the district was still looking for the community’s approval to spend approximately $2.5 million. The vote was a meager 85-65 for the new trucks. With over 11,000 voting age residents in the fire district, where was everybody that Tuesday?
In comparison, on Sept. 18, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket saw 416 residents approve its budget and 61 voting “no.” While not a huge turnout, more people showed up to cast their votes.
Looking at board of education votes in North Shore communities, the turnouts seem only marginally higher. Considering school budgets can be a big hit to taxes, why do so many people miss out on casting their votes?
In 2019, for example, the Miller Place School District proposed a $74 million budget, an $1.2 million increase from the previous year. Only 783 residents turned out to vote. The hamlet may be small compared to other districts in our area, but according to the 2010 census, more than 12,000 people live there. Again, where was everyone?
When it comes to elections, whether for a fire or school district or library, entities are required by law to post legal notices in their local newspapers, which they do. And while they are not legally obligated to, many send out letters and include information in their newsletters and on their websites, and spread the word through social media. Plus, many school districts and libraries hold events to go over budgets with the community, though the meetings tend to be not well-attended by residents. The current system and practices seem inadequate.
It may be time for elected officials to look into the possibility of combining all such votes on one day, either in November or on primary day. If that’s not possible, due to fire district boundaries being different to those of school districts, then maybe legislators can set up funds to help fire districts, schools and libraries cover costs to better advertise elections. With the most recent Setauket Fire District vote, no letters were sent out, due to cost.
Under the current arrangement, entities have more incentive not to promote elections, since low voter turnout often means a proposal is more likely to be approved by the few people in the know.
Perhaps it’s time to institute a requirement: A certain percentage of residents must vote before a referendum can become official.
But the onus must also fall on the electorate as well as the government entities organizing an election.
So, in the meantime: Vote! It’s the only way to be sure your voice is heard.