Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 3, 2014

Editorial: NMC must give voters reason to say 'yes'

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — It may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true: Every vote counts. Its corollary is just as true — every vote not cast also counts, in its own way.

An analysis of the Aug. 6 special election in which voters trounced a Northwestern Michigan College millage request for a 0.4-mill, 15-year property tax hike by a more than 2-1 margin clearly shows choosing not to vote can have as great an impact as casting a ballot.

A voter age breakdown of the voting contained some amazing and revealing numbers, and not just for the college.

Two voters were 102 years old but incredibly, only five 18-year-olds bothered to vote. Five. Just 65 people aged 18 to 21 cast ballots, compared to the 67 voters who were 94 or older. That means fewer than 1 percent of the 11,756 Grand Traverse County residents who voted were of traditional college age. Further, 94.5 percent of absentee ballots were cast by those 60 and older.

Political consultant Mark Grebner said NMC hurt its chances by holding a special election in August. Absentee ballots tend to dominate special elections and those ballots are typically cast by older voters — who he said are more likely to oppose property tax increases.

What should matter here is how good a job the college does in making its case to the public if it goes to voters again, which seems likely. NMC officials generally agree they need to do a better job of telling voters why they need the money. And part of that job, obviously, must be to reach out to younger voters.

The board says it wants to increase public awareness of how NMC adds value to the community and the financial challenges facing the college. Its outreach campaign will include campus tours, board member appearances at service club meetings, advertising, and community conversations with various groups. That’s not a young person strategy.

And the board has stubbornly refused to embrace a simple tool to let voters see what’s going on for themselves — televising its meetings. If the aim is to increase awareness of what the college does, take the conversation public. Discuss, in meetings voters can tune in to from their living rooms, the goals of a new millage request and why they matter. Let voters/viewers gain a sense of ownership by letting them in on the ground floor.

Voters have to feel they understand the need and the plan and it matters to them. If the college wants wider public support, it needs to court the public.