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Voting in Watertown down over 20 years


What's the matter with Watertown voters?

In 1987, 7,768 city residents voted in the mayoral race. By 2007, turnout had nearly halved, with 4,065 people voting.

It's not for lack of bodies. In 1987, 10,625 people were registered to vote in the city. Today, 13,461 people will be able to vote for their mayor.

They also will be able to vote for City Council members, but who will win is a moot point: Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns and Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. are running for the two available seats, the first time in at least 20 years that members of City Council have run unopposed.

“This race has been, despite efforts to the contrary, a fairly quiet race,” said Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, who is running for his fifth term today against Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith. “There hasn't been a lot of bombast on TV. There hasn't been a lot of anything.”There are a multitude of reasons why fewer people come out to vote, experts say. In Watertown, the two most obvious have to do with Fort Drum — the demographics and the economics of the massive military installation. Add that to the fact that America seems less engaged than it used to be, and you have a recipe for a bland Election Day.

In 1991, a sea change election in which Mr. Graham, then a political newcomer, beat a longtime member of City Council, 7,449 people voted. In 1995, 6,443 came out. When Joseph M. Butler Sr. defeated Mr. Graham in 1999, still fewer — 6,255 — cast ballots. Mr. Graham's political comeback to office in 2003 featured 5,353 voters, and in 2007, 4,065 people voted.

Though Fort Drum has brought economic expansion and a boost to the city's population since 1984, it probably didn't bring many people who are heavily invested in City Hall's doings.

“They can vote, but they're just not interested in voting,” said Robert N. Wells, an emeritus professor at St. Lawrence University, Canton. “Plus, half of them are overseas at any given time.”

Watertown's economy, too, is on solid ground because of Fort Drum's expansion. The city also benefits from a strong Canadian dollar, which prompts more Canadians to shop — and pay sales tax — that goes to all governments in Jefferson County.

“I think there's a general satisfaction with the way things are going,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham has witnessed the trends firsthand, since he has run for mayor in every election since 1991.

“I don't think it's me,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Wells doesn't agree with that. He means it as a compliment.

“The guy monopolized the whole arena. He appears to satisfy the interests of the people,” he said. “Most people don't feel like he's going to get defeated.”

This year, Mr. Graham is predicting about 4,500 votes will be cast.

Mr. Smith is doing what he can to boost that number. He doesn't quite understand why turnout is down, but says “it's a shame.”

To combat the lethargy, Mr. Smith has made fliers for active voters in Watertown that tells them where they're supposed to vote.

“I hope to have a good turnout,” he said. “I've campaigned pretty hard. Hopefully it will encourage people to be interested in the election.”

The issue of declining voter numbers is not unique to Watertown, experts say. And while Mr. Wells and Mr. Graham argue that people aren't voting because things are going well, it's often the exact opposite, one expert argues.

“I think local governments are gradually being seen as not having major impacts and as largely just coping with declining economies,” Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said in an email message. “There seems to be less sense they are really influencing things and voter interest may be dropping off accordingly.”

The figures paint a picture of a less engaged citizenry, a troubling democratic development, Mr. Smith said.

“I don't know if it's a generational thing, that people aren't being taught the importance of their civic duty,” he said. “I think people take for granted that this is a right they have.”Citizen interest in running for office, too, has dropped off, with Mr. Butler and Ms. Burns running unopposed.

Mr. Smith said citizens have done a quick calculus, and decided that running for office is not worth the hassle. People whom he's never met have told Mr. Smith that they don't like him, he said.

“Every part of your life is scrutinized,” he said. “It's like you're not expected to be a human.”

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