With the general election for governor and other statewide offices in less than two weeks, history suggests Kentucky voters will do what they always do — stay home and complain about the results in barbershops and on social media afterward.
The United States was founded on the principle of one person having one vote, yet in the last general election for governor, only a little more than 1 in 4 Letcher County voters bothered to go to the polls. In the primary the numbers were even worse — one in 10 Letcher County voters cast a ballot. Statewide, just 30.6 percent of voters cast a ballot to decide who would be elected governor and lieutenant governor. The winner took office with the votes of just 16 percent of those registered to cast a ballot.
In a time when the national parties are locked in battle over voter suppression or voter empowerment, it’s time for Kentuckians to get serious about democracy. The old saying “use it or lose it” is especially applicable to a republic. Those who choose not to vote are at the mercy of those who are enthusiastic to get to the polls. Politicians respond to the people who can put them out of office, but if Kentucky election tabulations are any indication, they don’t have much to worry about.
This spring, just 18.1 percent of Democrats in Letcher County voted in their nominating contest, and 21.8 percent of Republicans voted. Statewide, the percentages were 23.7 percent of Democrats and 18.3 percent of Republicans.
The vote in the last statewide election is just the most egregious of the examples we found of voter apathy. In 2016, a presidential election year when the number of people voting is always higher, turnout in Letcher County was still only 55.5 percent, just below the national rate of 55.7 percent.
Contrast that to voting rates in the United Kingdom, where the number of people voting has dropped below 60 percent only twice in the past 101 years. It fell to 57.9 in 1918, when the UK was mired in World War I, and 59.4 in 2001. In Belgium, Sweden and Denmark, the voting turnout rates topped 80 percent of eligible voters in the last national elections, according to the Pew Research Center, and does so consistently.
In Letcher County, out of a voting-age population of 19,358, there are 16,522 registered to vote, or about 85 percent, well above the national average of about 67 percent. However, they don’t turn out on Election Day. Even in last year’s county election, when the offices are presumably closer to the people and have more effect on their daily lives, just 50.4 percent of registered voters turned out.
Democrat turnout here is worse than Republican. In last year’s General Election, 48.8 percent of Letcher County Democrats voted, compared to 57.0 percent of Republicans.
Why voting here remains low is anyone’s guess, but Kentucky’s voting is more limited than many other states. While some allow voting by mail and keep polling places open for days, voters here must prove they are disabled or will be out of the county on Election Day in order to vote absentee, and the polls are open for just 12 hours — from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Election Day.
Whatever the reason, the result is government of, by and for only a small percentage of the people.
We encourage voters here and elsewhere in Kentucky to go to the polls on November 5 and vote. It is your right, and your responsibility.