Suppose they gave an election and nobody showed up?
"Suppose they gave a war and nobody showed up" was a common slogan on anti-war posters during the Vietnam War era. Flash forward 40-plus years, substitute the word "election" for "war," and you'd get a pretty good description of what actually happened last May in the Shelby County's primary elections, when nine out of 10 of us decided to vote with our feet, or more correctly, with our butts.
Voter apathy here has long been appalling and lurches from bad to worse with each successive election. Last year's city mayor's race, for example, only attracted 18 percent of the potential electorate — half of what it was two decades earlier. This May's Shelby County turnout was a remarkably low 8 percent, probably some kind of national record. Writing shortly after Eric Cantor lost his House seat in a primary race in June when only a fraction of the electorate showed up, Charles Blow of the New York Times asked: "What does it say about America as a society ... when so many sit at home, and allow the voices of so few to carry so much weight?"
We do know what it says about Memphis. "You snooze, you lose" should be our communal bumper sticker, as we enter this August election cycle (early voting begins July 18th), when not only county and state positions will be decided (along with party representatives for federal office), but also, more importantly, each and every judiciary position in Shelby County. You may think it's meaningless who gets to sit on our county commission or school board, but if you think the quality of the people who run our criminal and civil courts is unimportant, then you clearly are living on another planet.
That's why, beginning this week, the Flyer will be publishing in full-page form the results of the Memphis Bar Association's membership Judicial Qualification Poll (see page 18). We will do so again in every issue of this newspaper until election day on August 7th. It's our hope that by doing this, we will help inform Shelby County voters as to how the 87 lawyers who are candidates for judicial office in this upcoming election are regarded by their peers in the Memphis Bar.
This is no ordinary election; we will be choosing the judges who will run our local and state courts for the next eight years. For better or worse, I suspect a majority of our readers will have some contact with at least one of these judges at some point during that period. To play no role in deciding who those judges might be is the height of folly.
Keep in mind that the publication of this poll in no way suggests any kind for endorsement of its results. As regular readers know, the Flyer has long declined to endorse candidates in local elections. (Check out "Why We Don't Endorse" at memphisflyer.com.)
But this non-endorsement policy in no way suggests that we don't care about election results or the level of participation in our elections. Letting so few among us decide so much is one of the greatest threats to our collective future. "Knowledge is power," as Francis Bacon famously said long ago, so we applaud the Memphis Bar Association for providing the public with the results of their membership poll. A well-informed potential voter is far more likely than one who is uninformed to show up at the polling place.
Kenneth Neill is the publisher of Contemporary Media, parent company of the Flyer.
Bruce VanWyngarden is on vacation this week.