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Saranac Lake voters paying more attention

The spirit of democracy has risen again in Saranac Lake. Specifically, we are excited that voter turnout in Tuesday’s village board election was much higher than usual. We are also grateful to all four candidates or their willingness to put themselves out there, and we congratulate winners Rich Shapiro and Tom Catillaz.

Eight hundred and twenty-six people voted. On one hand, that’s not all that high — only 28% of the village’s 2,941 registered voters (numbers from village Clerk Kareen Tyler) and 16% of the total village population of 5,200 (2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate).

Still, it’s well over triple the anemic 250-voter turnout of the last village election in 2018. Granted, that one was uncontested; the last two contested village elections, in 2016 and 2014, each drew somewhere around 500 voters. That, sadly, has been a fairly typical over the past few decades.

Still, 826 is a far cry from the highest voter turnout this village has seen. More than 1,400 people voted in the 2006 election, with a Walmart hanging in the balance. The 2003 election drew 1,117, and the 1991 election drew 1,125, according to past Enterprise reports. History columnist Howard Riley recalled recently that 1,862 people voted in the 1963 village election, when he won a seat on the board (and when, it’s worth noting, the village then had significantly more residents).

One possible reason for the increase was that more people were more willing to try absentee voting due to the pandemic, which meant they could vote at their convenience without leaving home. But still, they needed motivation to request ballots and return them.

From time to time, big issues and new energy drive people to vote in higher numbers. In 2006 the issue was obvious. Democrats, who urged caution on Walmart’s plan to build a Supercenter where Aldi and Carcuzzi are now, swept to victory, and Republican candidates, who supported Walmart, bemoaned afterward that other issues had been steamrolled.

This time around there was no issue that big, but it was different to have a contest of Democrats (the now-reelected incumbents) vs. democratic socialists. The race was looking very sleepy at its original March election date. Only 18 people shoed up for a debate we hosted, and we had received only seven letters. But then some local residents formed a new progressive group, the High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, challenging the all-Democrat board on its response to police reform, racist graffiti and the proposed Adirondack Pregnancy Center. The DSA endorsed Green Party candidate Fred Balzac and then Trevor Sussey, who joined as a write-in candidate since the ballot had been locked in months before.

These activists added a great deal of passion and energy to the race. Enterprise readers saw that every day on the Opinion page. We published dozens of letters on this race. But in the end, the DSA didn’t have the numbers to carry the day, and Saranac Lake went with the more moderate Democrats.

There were no Republicans in the running this time, but there are still many Republican voters in the village. Presumably many of them voted for Democrats this time around. A few Republicans endorsed Democrats in letters to the editor, warning against the democratic socialists’ agenda. Did aversion to socialism drive higher turnout? It’s hard to say.

We hope all that citizen engagement doesn’t go to waste. This community needs people who care enough to speak up and get involved. We hope this election shows the village board that people are paying attention to the details of what they do, and that Saranac Lakers are eager for a government that solves problems and serves the common good.

They also want a village government that is transparent. The current board is too comfortable discussing issues via email, outside of the public eye. This goes against at least the spirit of the Open Meetings Law, which begins with this declaration:

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.”

Villagers reelected incumbents this time around, but they will continue to be watchful. They only get to vote once every two years, but they have ways of making their voices heard all the time. Not only can they speak up at meetings, but they can write letters and Guest Commentaries to this newspaper, and we are happy to publish them.

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