The November elections are just around the corner. Unfortunately, since it is not a major presidential election, the local electorate tend not to go out and vote. Voter turnout rarely reflects the majority of registered voters. This apparent social indifference is very troubling.
Recently, in a sociology class I teach, we talked about government, political leadership and the average citizen's involvement in local and national politics. It was amazing to note how many college coeds did not know who their federally elected senators, state senators, assembly people, County Executive, county legislators and local town councilpersons are. In addition to not knowing who represents them, there was an attitude of indifference and a feeling that it really did not matter who was holding public office and that their involvement mattered even less.
After an extended conversation, it seems to me that we are missing the mark in our high school government classes and most of the civic classes that we offer. Too many young people of college age have no interest in the political process and/or believe that it is a waste of time.
Clearly, they've grown up believing people cannot make a difference. They also expressed that the average person's voice falls on deaf ears. It was surprising to see how many students believed that government, at every level, was corrupt and inept. They do not believe that change is possible.
With the November election fast approaching, I asked them to identify what the major issues are. Only 15% of the class could even address what some of the issues might be for this election. The question of the undocumented was raised as a volatile political issue, the issues of taxes, affordable housing and the war in Iraq. The rest of the class had a hard time verbalizing social issues of concern.
After a little coaxing, students raised issues about the cost of health care, cost and quality of education, safety in neighborhoods and a wide range of respect issues. However, students made it clear that no matter what they said, their viewpoints would not matter. In that same conversation, we talked about people who have made a difference and have made the world a better place. People like Mohandas Gandhi from India, Dr. Martin Luther King from the United States, Nelson Mandela from South Africa, Mother Teresa from Calcutta, Gerry Adams from Belfast, Northern Ireland and so many others, whose voice, energy and commitment have changed the course of human history and the way in which we think about many things. One voice can make a profound difference.
Hopefully, in the next number of weeks, those who are of age to vote will register to vote, and everyone of eligible voting age will vote for all offices and propositions on the ballot for this November. As we move closer to election day, hopefully we will all continue to educate ourselves on the issues and on the candidates running for public office.
Let us be careful not to be seduced by mindless propaganda that exploits people and fails to address the issues. This year alone in New York State, millions of dollars will be expended on wasteful, unconscionable political propaganda, which will never come close to exposing the real issues and what the candidates running for office really feel. If we took all of that misdirected money and applied it to the human service needs in our state, we might genuinely begin to service the needs of our poor and those among us who are at risk.
We need to be educated, not brainwashed. We need the candidates running for public office to clearly and concisely outline their positions on all of the issues and not hide behind political rhetoric that ultimately says nothing. Endless ad hominem attacks only cloud the important issues that need to be addressed. As educated and intelligent voters, we should not be distracted by that nonsense. We should vote for the person and his or her position on the issue, and not for the party.
On this non-presidential election year, what are the issues that really impact us who live in Suffolk County? Do you know what the issues are? Do you have a sense of what you feel about the issues? Do you know what those candidates running for office feel about these issues?
Areas of concern to consider as you look at the political positions that need to be filled this November: how to approach the multiple concerns around the undocumented, the escalating costs of health care, the dwindling access to vital human services, our tax burden, the safety and quality of our schools, police and law enforcement, and services for our senior citizens. This is a very incomplete list of serious issues that need to be faced by those in power at every level of government.
The war on drugs is driving the US prison system's enormous growth. Over the past twenty-five years, drug arrests have tripled. Almost half a million men and women are behind bars for drug related offenses. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which in many cases focus on drug offenses, have had a devastating effect on our communities of diversity. Initially, when these laws were enacted, their intent was to take all the drug lords off the street. Unfortunately, social science research shows that over 60% of our serious drug offenders are non-violent, low level street dealers.
Nationally, we hear some rumblings about the drug war and how and where it is escalating. Unfortunately, what we don't hear is how it's escalating right here in our own neighborhoods. More and more school administrators are complaining about how drugs are infecting their respective high school and middle school communities. Our courts and our jails are bursting with an escalation of drug related cases.
In our own county, we are not equipped to handle the volume and severity of what is emerging. Our District Attorney and our Police Commissioner are doing a Herculean job with limited and dwindling resources. They have confirmed that the majority of drug related crimes are being committed by non-violent, non-traditional criminals. For the sake of our criminal justice system and our law enforcement agents, we need to address this local infection differently - and now!
Unfortunately, it is not even on this year's political agenda. There is not a politician running for re-election or for office for the first time that has in his or her literature, a position on the drug and alcohol epidemic that is infecting our community and what he or she plans to do about it.
As we go to the polls this November, for a wide range of reasons, there are less support resources for those who are struggling with addiction. There are fewer rehabs and fewer therapeutic opportunities available to help people inflicted with this issue transform their lives. The only alternative seems to be incarceration. That approach does not address the issue, nor does it empower the person in question to embrace human transformation and get his or her life back on track.
As the electorate in Suffolk County, we need to challenge those running for public office with new questions and hold them accountable to give us appropriate answers. Our voice can and does make a difference.