People vote at the Cross Insurance Center on Tuesday in a special election to fill a Maine House vacancy representing parts of Bangor and Orono. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Last month, Bangor voters narrowly decided to forgo annual school budget votes for at least the next three years. Instead, the City Council’s vote will be the final step in the approval process.

From a good governance perspective, we’re not sold on the idea of voters giving up their school budget backstop, which can act as a check on local spending. Several other municipalities opted not to go this route.

The Bangor vote was decided by a tally of 352-347. That’s about as close as it gets. However, the city’s voters have spoken, for now, on the school budget referendum issue.

The real problem here isn’t the outcome of the vote or how close it was, it’s the remarkably low level of voter turnout.

The 703 total people voting in the June election amounts to barely over 3 percent of Bangor’s registered voters. That doesn’t make the final result any less valid, but does raise serious concerns about voter participation.

Maine is generally seen as a leader in voter turnout, and for good reason. Our voter participation rate of roughly 60 percent in the November 2018 election was sixth overall in the country, according to the United States Elections Project. That still leaves 40 percent of eligible voters not participating, and more troublingly, those numbers often see a stark dropoff in local elections when there aren’t any national, state or congressional contests to draw more people to the polls.

According to an OpEd in The New York Times from University of California San Diego political science professor Zoltan Hajnal, only 27 percent of voters nationwide participate in local elections. That is alarmingly low, but still much better than Bangor’s 3 percent this June.

“This isn’t a new problem, and its causes are fairly obvious: Many local elections are held on dates other than national elections. Sometimes it’s a different day; sometimes it’s an off-year, in between midterms and presidential votes,” Hajnal wrote last fall. “It’s hard enough getting people to vote for president and Congress; it’s even harder to get them out again to vote for county and city officials.”

Hajnal suggests scheduling local elections to coincide with national contests to ensure “on-cycle” local elections. Municipalities across the country are trying more incentive methods as well. The city of Los Angeles, for example, has experimented with a cash lottery for voters in hopes of incentivizing participation.

Moving some of these local elections in Maine may not be practical or possible, because of how they fit into municipal budget timelines. And cash incentives to votes aren’t realistic in already resource-strapped communities.

The most readily available solution, it seems to us, is for people to become more engaged in the local decision-making that impacts their communities. That, we know, is easier said than done. It falls to local leaders and the media to get the word out about local elections, and it falls to all of us as citizens to show up and vote.

Complaining about election results is about as American as actually voting. We certainly like to do it. But to lean on and old saying, if you’re going to spend energy complaining about the outcome, you should probably take the time to vote.