Local officials perplexed by voter apathy

By William Thompson

Portales and Roosevelt County officals are dismayed so many registered voters don’t exercise their contitutional right to vote. Only 473 voters participated in a recent school district-sponsored mil levy election in Portales, and just 357 voters went to the polls in the last municipal election in 2004.

Debbi Zurzulo, finance director for Portales schools said the mil levy election cost the school district more than $7 per vote cast, and that money comes out of city tax revenues.

“We printed up brochures and Superintendent (Randy) Fowler spoke to groups in town,” Zurzolo said. “I don’t know why more people didn’t turn out. You would have thought that more school employees and parents would have voted.”

Lori Bollema has children who attend Portales schools and she is a registered voter, but she said she didn’t vote in the mil levy election or the last municipal election.

“I don’t have a good reason why I didn’t vote,” she said. “I guess I didn’t know what I would have been voting for.”
Bollema said she is still undecided as to whether she will vote in the upcoming city council election.

Portales city clerk Joan Martinez-Terry said she is still a little shocked by the number of voters in the 2004 municpal election, a little more than 5 percent of registered voters.

“I really push for people to vote,” Martinez-Terry said, “but I have members of my own family who don’t vote. They say, ‘Whats’s the use? Nothing ever changes.’ I think it’s just general apathy on the part of many registered voters. I think the city could spend all the money it wanted on advertising the elections but it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.”
Numbers for the 2002 municipal election were higher. More than 2,000 voted in that election. Martinez-Terry said it was because that election involved a contested mayoral race. She said in years where there is not a big ballot question or a contested mayoral race, numbers will go down.

She didn’t count on numbers going down as low as they did in the 2004 municipal election, however.

Former chairman of the Roosevelt County Republican Party, Marshall Stinnett, said he regrets voter apathy but wouldn’t be surprised if the upcoming city council election in March sees significantly low numbers of voters.

“You can’t make people vote,” Stinnett said. “There is no controversy in this election and the mayor is not running against anyone. The city council candidates all sound about the same.”

Stinnett said another reason the voter percentages are low in Portales and Roosevet County is because Eastern New Mexico University students from out of town move here, register to vote, cast their vote once then leave.

“It takes forever to get those students’ names off the voting rolls, “ Stinnett said, admitting that there is still plenty of voter apathy.

“Voter apathy in municipal elections is horrible nationwide,” he said.”

Janet Collins, Roosevelt County Clerk, said she was apalled at the low numbers for the recent mil levy election.

“People get so much from the national media these days,” she said, “and small local elections are advertised just in the local newspaper and on local radio stations.”

Collins said she expects a 25 percent voter turnout in the county for the upcoming June primary. That’s about half the percentage of county voters who vote in general elections.
She said the number of voters goes up dramatically during presidential elections.

Out of about 11,000 registered voters in the county, 7,163 voted in the 2004 presidential election. The 2002 general election saw 4, 412 votes cast out of 9, 755 registered voters.

She said the notoriety gained from holding an elected position in the city or the county is small compared to that of national leaders, and that could be a reason why many residents don’t take much interest in local elections.

Mike Farrauto, executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said it’s hard for him to understand why someone wouldn’t want to vote.

“Do you want your streets improved? Do you want your children to have a good education? Do you want your tax dollars managed responsibly?,” he asked, “If so, then exercise your fundamental right to vote for the candidate of your choice.”

Farrauto said if Portales residents are more interested in national politics then right here in Portales is the place to get involved.

“I remember what former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill said. He said ‘All politics is local.’ If the people of Portales want to get their country going in the right direction they have to start in their own community. They need to act locally.
Portales resident Mark Cage said he was one of the 357 who voted in the 2004 municipal election.

“I vote because I want to have some type of control of what goes on in my community,” he said.