Quick, what was the voter turnout for the Presidential election last year? The turnout for your latest Mayoral race or an election for another influential local official?
The exact number is not important. The fact that it was very low is important.
The rate was actually close enough to 58.2 percent, down from 61.6 percent in 2008. In the 1990s it dropped in the mid-50s.
We take a lot of what is important in our public lives for granted. For example, we assume our transportation infrastructure will be there, we expect it will be the best in the world and we expect it to stay that way. And generally it is and it does.
The Birmingham News is the biggest of West Alabama’s regional newspapers. It recently ran a half page story with headline, “Bridge replacement plans draw questions,” that begins like this:
“The Alabama Department of Transportation’s current proposal to rebuild the Interstate 20/59 bridges through downtown would make permanent alterations to nearby streets, and the idea has nearby residents and businesses fretting the impacts.”
It’s a story about public participation in the workings of the DOT and in this particular project. This sort of story is reasonably common in newspapers; the newspaper is carrying out one of its most important roles by keeping the public informed about of vital issues. But as newspapers begin to be less and less of a presence in our daily lives does the fact that we take so much of our infrastructure for granted mean we’ll just shrug if we see less and less of these sorts of stories?
Yes, “online” is there to deliver information whether it is a notice of public meeting from a DOT or blogs from people in a neighborhood who are up in arms about what a DOT proposes. But will we go look for it? Will we take the time? Can we be bothered? There is a something of the “shiny object” model at work here. Social media is king, tablets are cool, a watch that tells you where you are so you don’t have to look up and figure it out for yourself is increasingly a must-have.
We have to promote the idea that the digital landscape is the new Town Crier and keeps the public informed about – or perhaps more importantly interested in – what is happening with our highways and bridges, and a place that lets them participate. There’s an old movie (“So Fine”, 1981) where an actor, new to Venice, wonders how all the roads got flooded. Let’s hope we don’t look up from our phones one day and wonder how all our roads fell apart.