Should Municipalities Force Residents to Vote?
by Gus Jarvis
Feb 17, 2010 | 822 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
RIDGWAY – Can a small municipality like Ridgway adopt an ordinance that would require all legal residents to register and vote in all elections? While members of the Ridgway Town Council didn’t completely buy into Ridgway resident Tom Hennessy’s proposal at last week’s meeting, they all believed the notion would spark an interesting conversation nonetheless.

After a heated and lively discussion on Feb. 10, councilmembers denied Hennessy’s proposal to adopt an ordinance that would fine residents $15 for failing to vote in elections. Council did believe the proposal had merit for discussion purposes and decided that it would be a good idea to put the question to town voters in a non-binding, survey question in the upcoming April 6 municipal election.

“I have to walk a dog on a leash in town or I will get a fine,” Hennessy, who is co-owner of the Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery, told council. “All of these small city ordinances are good and are good for reasons. I thought, ‘why couldn’t we have the same thing for voting? What would happen if the Town of Ridgway had a 90 percent voter turnout?’ I think we would have more clout at the state level.”

Hennessy told council that the U.S. is ranked 59th in the world in registered voter turnout in elections, which is just behind Armenia and that there are 13,415 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. influencing lawmakers. All of that combined with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives large corporations a voice, Hennessy said, citizens need to do more to make their voice and vote heard.

“These are all things I believe erode our voice as U.S. citizens,” he said. “Voting is an obligation to citizenship. It is a social contract. If citizens don’t vote, the government loses legitimacy.”

Hennessy agreed that there is a First Amendment issue here in that “there are those who say you can’t tell me to vote but doesn’t all of our freedoms derive from this one thing?”

For the most part, members of council generally agreed with Hennessy in that finding a way to get more people to vote would be positive but enacting an ordinance that fines residents for not voting may not be the best way of doing it.

“This is interesting fodder for discussion,” Councilmember Ellen Hunter said. “Certainly, I would love to see more Americans get off the sofa and vote but I don’t know that forcing people to vote is that way to go about it.”

Councilmember Rick Weaver expressed a concern about the cost of enforcing an ordinance like this and questioned how the town would even go about doing so. “I think it is an interesting idea,” Weaver said. “It would certainly be a nice thing to have more people turn out and vote but one of my concerns would be the cost of enforcement.”

“There is just something about it that gives me the heebe geebees,” Mayor Pro Tem John Clark said, later adding that now is not the time for such an ordinance as many already believe that government is too forceful.

“I think it’s a great idea,” resident Tom McKenney said. “It might be a good question for the people of Ridgway to answer.”

The conversation Hennessy sparked with his proposed ordinance took a variety of twists and turns during the meeting but it was finally decided that a non-binding question would be drafted for Ridgway residents to answer during the April 6 election.

“When I heard about this, my first reaction was ‘Oh no,’” Mayor Pat Willits said. “The more I thought about it the more I like the idea of stirring the pot and forcing us to think. What if we were to just put this on the ballot as an opinion to keep the discussion going in the community?”

Hennessy agreed that if council couldn’t pass such an ordinance at least an opinion question would create a “great civics discussion.”

With that, council agreed (without the support of Clark) to keep the discussion going and directed staff to draft a non-binding ballot question for informational purposes for residents to answer sometime during the upcoming election.

“Maybe this is the start of a new movement,” Willits said, closing the discussion.

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