Democracy in action: Do voters care?

Americans are quick to wave the flag to show their patriotism. But that enthusiasm is less evident when it comes to actually participating in democracy and going to the polls to vote.

The Virginia ballot in the November 5 election includes two Constitutional amendments and two bond referenda worth over $1 billion. That's a pretty heady responsibility tossed into the laps of voters. With low voter turnout projected, people wonder will voters bother?

Local delegates Rob Bell and Mitch Van Yahres, a Republican and Democrat who often differ on legislation, both support the proposed amendments and referendums. "I'm planning to vote for all four," says Bell.

"I voted for them in the General Assembly and am for them on the ballot," says Van Yahres. "I think they're absolutely necessary."

The first proposed amendment allows convicted felons to take DNA evidence and appeal to the state Supreme Court instead of going to the governor, who "has no expertise in DNA evidence," says Bell. "The limitations to hard scientific evidence will keep it from being a back door for appeals." Van Yahres says the amendment will speed up the justice process for those who may be innocent.

Second on the ballot is an amendment that allows localities to make non-profit property exempt from taxes rather than having to go through the General Assembly, a slow and cumbersome process, which is the current method. For example, "If JABA builds housing for the elderly, they now have to go through the state to the General Assembly to get it exempted," explains Van Yahres.

"Rather than have this bureaucratic step," says Bell, "this lets the localities do it."

Sally Thomas, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, welcomes the chance for localities to assume that responsibility, but points out, "There's a little irony. There are a lot of other things we'd like to have the ability to do at the local level that the General Assembly never seems eager to give us. Something that's been a problem for them, they're quite happy to give to the localities."

While the two amendments have attracted no opposition, nor, for that matter, much attention either, the $900 million educational facilities bond, from which UVA and Piedmont Virginia Community College would gain $73.3 million, and the $119 million parks and recreational facilities bond are drawing fire from the Virginia Campground Association.

Steve Albrecht, president of the association, says state parks are "the only industry in the state in direct competition with the private sector."

The association, which the state parks also belong to, opposes both bonds at a time when the state has a $2.2 billion deficit, says Albrecht. "We think it's fiscally irresponsible."

On the other hand, Delegate Bell thinks now is an excellent time for the state to borrow money. "If we're ever going to do capital projects, I'd rather we do them now when we can get a 3 1/2 percent rate. If interest rates weren't so good, I doubt I'd support this."

The Nature Conservancy supports the parks bond, which calls for $36.5 million to go for land acquisition for natural area preserves and new parks. "It's an incredibly important first step," says Nikki Rovner at the Conservancy. "Virginia spends less than other East coast states. It'll send a message to the legislature that voters support conservation."

The Campground Association has nothing against nature preserves. "We're not against that kind of expenditure," says Albrecht. Nor, he stresses, is the association against state parks.

But he does object to price of new camping cabins in the referendum: $90,000 each. "You can build houses cheaper," he says.

Referendums on the ballot usually pass. But with voter apathy and anti-tax sentiment, Albrecht thinks his organization's chances to defeat both are "very good."

"We'll be manning the polls and making a major effort in the next two weeks," he adds.

Will low voter turnout affect passage of the amendments and referenda? "I'm very disappointed in thinking that it might," says Van Yahres. "After 9-11 and all we've been through, democracy in action should manifest itself in voting, instead of wearing our patriotism on our sleeve."