The results of last Tuesday’s city sales tax election make a couple of statements about the Tahlequah community, and they’re not necessarily positive.
On the bright side, passage of the tax suggests many people are willing to open their wallets to help take the city into the future, despite tough economic times and a history of situations that generated voter distrust. The close margin – 506 to 457 – is not unusual, and unfortunately, neither is the low turnout: Out of about 5,000 registered voters in Tahlequah, only 963 cast ballots.
The tax was controversial from the start, and seemed to get more polarizing as the election drew nearer. Some citizens would have opposed any new tax on general principles; others didn’t like the clause that earmarked $1.5 million for NSU. Some rural residents resented being left out of the vote, when they, too, will have to pay the tax. The biggest objection, though, was the lightning pace at which the issue unfolded, with many residents asking why the question couldn’t have been on the ballot for the Feb. 12 municipal election.
These are legitimate concerns, but more troubling is the low voter turnout, and the reasons behind it.
Immediately after the election, dozens of people complained they hadn’t known about it. A few even called the Press and other area media sources to ask why the public hadn’t been informed about the election. Some accused us of colluding with city officials to sneak the tax in through the back door.
But the facts don’t back up the claim. Anyone who gives even a cursory read to the Press’ daily print or e-edition, or who regularly scans our website or Facebook page, must have known about the election. Starting with Mayor Jason Nichols’ initial announcement Oct. 20, 2012, about the tax proposal, the Press published 24 elements on the subject. These included six front-page staff-written stories, press releases, community event briefs, editorials, letters to the editor and advertisements. There were also two website polls, and various Facebook solicitations and discussions. Other area media entities published or broadcast information as well. Mayor Jason Nichols spoke to at least 20 meetings of area civic organizations about the tax, and flyers were distributed throughout the city.
Despite the widely criticized haste with which the election was planned and executed, the information was out there; no one tried to suppress it in a repeat of at least one occasion in the past. The media asked questions, many of which were provided by readers themselves, and city and NSU officials were forthcoming in their responses. Still, some people were unaware of the election, because they don’t read local papers, listen to local radio stations, attend meetings of governmental bodies or civic clubs, or pay attention to the day-to-day activities in their community. Had they been doing so, many of them would have beat feet to the polls, and the outcome of the election may have been quite different.
Or maybe not. Clearly, more than 963 Tahlequah residents knew what was going on, but many didn’t bother to vote. And many of those who didn’t know about the election probably wouldn’t have voted, either, even if they’d been informed.
Tuesday’s election is a case study in what can happen when apathy takes root in a significant swath of a community. The media and local leaders can do everything in their power to get the word out, but their efforts are fruitless for the folks who aren’t listening.
Every American has a responsibility to stay abreast of what’s going on in his city, state, nation and world. Reading the local newspaper is a good place to start, but there are other sources of information, too. As the Daily Press has repeatedly stressed over the years, everyone should register to vote, and then go to the polls every time they open. Elections in Tahlequah have been decided more than once by one or two votes.
If you have neighbors who seem out of the loop on community issues, or who don’t vote for whatever reason, make an effort to set them straight. Remind them of the stakes of staying in the dark. If you don’t stay abreast of what’s happening around you, chances are good you’ll eventually miss something important – like a vote on a sales tax increase of which you may or may not approve.