Those who venture to downtown Mount Airy this weekend for the Autumn Leaves Festival no doubt will encounter mobs of people.
Festival visitors will be clogging the streets while trying to make their way through throngs of others doing the same thing, and when not doing that might find themselves waiting in line for a collard green sandwich or funnel cake.
Even when the festival is not occurring, you can see the same kind of mob scenes at Walmart or certain restaurants at peak times.
But one place you are guaranteed never, ever to encounter a crowd is a polling place during a Mount Airy primary election. You’ll find no one pushing, shoving or waiting in line.
Before the last city primary this past Tuesday, I thought that one might be different in terms of turnout, which had been around 10 percent for the last such election in 2013 and 5.8 percent for the previous one in 2011.
After all, enthusiasm was high, what with seven candidates vying for two available seats in Tuesday’s primary and much interest surrounding the role of a controversial redevelopment plan in the campaigns as candidates offered vastly different views on its scope.
And there seemed to be much excitement about the primary during a political forum held by a local “millennials” group on Sept. 30.
I must admit that my own expectation for the turnout was uncharacteristically high, since I normally have a pessimistic view of the human condition and people’s ability to motivate themselves to do the right things — such as voting.
Yet those hopes were dashed Tuesday when I went to check out one of the voting stations, the Municipal Building.
Surely, I had told myself while riding over, there will be much activity around the parking lot — I envisioned voters streaming in and being greeted by candidates or their representatives handing out the usual “vote for me” memorabilia.
I saw one lonely man standing there, apparently a volunteer for one of the candidates, looking somewhat lost as he gazed forlornly toward the horizon.
At the end of the day (as they say), the numbers provided hard evidence of my raw observation from that morning.
The stats showed just under 13 percent (12.67) of Mount Airy’s electorate had bothered to cast a ballot in one of the most hotly contested elections in years. Mount Airy has 6,464 registered voters (an interesting figure, by the way), and out of that only 819 saw fit to devote 10 minutes of their valuable time to go vote.
Yes, this level of participation was better than the last few primaries here — but still pathetic.
Keep in mind that city taxpayers are paying a hefty price to conduct primaries, so you’d think they would want to participate. Since Mount Airy is the only municipality in Surry County holding them, the city must absorb all the administrative costs involved, while for general elections those expenses are shared among all four municipalities in the county.
Each city primary costs between $10,000 and $11,000, based on figures cited in previous reports.
The county board of elections, which oversees the process, certainly goes above and beyond to keep voters informed about early voting programs, polling locations and hours and other details designed to make casting ballots as convenient as possible.
Elections personnel are probably frustrated by the turnout, and I know the candidates are, judging by their post-election comments Tuesday night. Rather than celebrating their victories to become finalists for the November general election, the majority of those I spoke to seemed more concerned with the low turnout than the outcome itself.
One commented that he would love to find some way to “get people to vote.”
Well, you know, it’s kind of like keeping folks from littering. Much of what’s done in response to that problem is after the fact, but the real solution is to get people to quit engaging in it on their own.
The same is true of voting. Rather than have somebody preach at them (which I guess is what I’m doing here today), citizens must be motivated in their hearts and minds to vote on their own without a lot of urging. The redevelopment controversy aside, Mount Airy elected officials are the ones who set our property tax rate and do other important things such as attracting economic development and jobs.
I typically try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, but when it comes to voter apathy I must admit there is no possible solution in my mind except maybe opening a voting location at Walmart.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693.