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Sexing up our local democracy

City Sage

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As we've seen in recent days, young people don't vote. Turnout for the April 7 municipal election in the 18-to-35 age group was a brutal 7.5 percent and for 30-to-44 an only slightly less brutal 14.4 percent.

Voting may be an essential duty of citizens in a democracy, but it's entirely optional. Just as no one forces you to sign up for Facebook or Twitter, no law compels you to exercise your right to vote.

City elections take place every odd-numbered year, always on the first Tuesday in April. In the past nine elections, turnout as a percentage of registered voters has varied from 14.95 percent in 2005 to 59.81 percent in 2011. The average rate is approximately 42 percent.

The 2005 percentage may have skewed downward because two of four district City Council races featured incumbents without opposition. Conversely, voter interest peaked in 2011 with seven Council seats and the first elected "strong mayor" on the ballot.

Those two were outliers. Our April 7 turnout, at 39.05 percent, basically mirrors the 2007 and 2013 numbers of 41.5 and 39.5 percent.

Do those figures alarm you? If so, we have three options.

• Do nothing. Geezers rule, so get used to it. Serving on Council gets them off the streets and out of the bars.

• Play the civic engagement/civic responsibility/collective guilt card, something along the lines of: "Woe is us — it's up to our generation to seize the reins of power, and lead Colorado Springs to a bright new future! Let's make our city cool and fill the breweries, galleries, distilleries and meeting places with young, energetic and engaged citizens."

• Ask ourselves a simple question: WWMZD? Or, what would Mark Zuckerberg do? If Facebook's founder and CEO saw that his company's market penetration in any demographic was 7.5 percent, he'd see a marketing problem. He wouldn't berate the 92.5 percent of the demo who didn't use his service, but refocus his product delivery system. And if his team didn't produce, they'd be looking for work elsewhere.

Voting in local elections has always been awkward. For years, voters went to neighborhood polling stations, showed their ID, stood in line, filled out a ballot in a curtained booth, and dropped it into a ballot box. It was inconvenient yet satisfying. You saw your neighbors and friends, and you had a sense of participating in an important ritual of democracy.

Voting by mail may be a low-cost option, but there's nothing satisfying about it. It's solitary and inconvenient, like filling out a credit-card application online — just another task in days filled with tasks. It's not a product, not a service, and it's not even free — postage stamp required. Yet by failing to vote, that young-adult demo may put our fragile democracy at risk.

Local elections are like college sports: You have to play to get to the next level. Consider Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who previously served as Denver's mayor, or former Sen. Mark Udall, who moved from the state Legislature to the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually the Senate. Aspiring pols need to start between 25 and 45, not 55 and 75.

So what's the plan?

• Get useful data. Who are the 18-to-44 non-voters among registered voters? Who are the eligible unregistered voters? What might motivate them to register and/or vote?

• Move municipal elections from April to November, as Colorado Springs City Attorney J.W. Sheafor suggested in the city's annual report in 1902. Maybe it's time to act on his recommendation, 113 years later.

• Stop nickel-and-diming elections. If democracy is a such big deal, pull out all the stops. That means creating multiple paths to voting, including polling stations and Internet sites as well as mail ballots. It means publicly financed get-out-the-vote campaigns, and even tangible rewards. Instead of patriotic little stickers, how about free lottery tickets and coupon books?

• Pay city employees turnout-based bonuses.

If local democracy is worth preserving, it has to compete in a new world, one in which amazing services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are free and instantly accessible. You can prattle on about good government all you want, but the market doesn't care.

Voting? That's so last century! I bet you still love MySpace, and wonder where you can find the latest issue of the Rocky Mountain News ...

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