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From the President
Why Don’t More APA Members Vote?
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 23 page 3-62
Anchor for JumpAnchor for JumpSoon after the new year, tens of thousands of ballots will go out in the mail to APA members. But if experience is any guide, only a small percentage of them will be returned. This is, in the words of the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The King and I," "a puzzlement." Why do so few members exercise their franchise in selecting the leaders of this organization and in setting APA policy?

It was not always so. If you track back voting rates in APA elections, you will find that they have dropped from roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of eligible members in the 1970s (a very respectable figure for any election) to around 40 percent in the 1990s. Two years ago, with Bylaws changes on the ballot to expand the categories of members eligible for fellowship status, the number of members voting on the question fell below the one-third needed to ratify the amendments. Thus, the Board was forced to exercise its powers to approve the changes that the vast majority of those who voted had endorsed. Last year, we hit an all-time low, as only 31 percent of members cast their ballots.

Could it be that members don’t think that it makes a difference who their leaders are? Consider what happened at APA’s Institute on Psychiatric Services in Chicago this October. At the conclusion of the Opening Session, after my presidential address, I invited the audience of several hundred to stay for a forum with the candidates for president-elect. After brief statements by each candidate, members had an opportunity to ask any question they liked of both contenders. However, as soon as the Opening Session concluded, there was a mad dash for the doors, as if some pharmaceutical company was giving out free umbrellas in the hallway. Thirty or so members stayed, and the discussion was frank and—I thought—helpful. But 30 members represented only a tiny fraction of the people in the room a few minutes before.

If the belief that it just doesn’t matter is what’s standing in the way of members’ voting, I would respectfully suggest that they have it wrong. APA is critical to the future of psychiatry, and APA Board members and officers play crucial roles in directing the organization’s efforts and the use of its resources. The initiatives that APA undertakes and how well they are pursued depend on the quality of the leadership that we choose for APA. And candidates are not all the same. The candidates you favor depend on your values.

Do you want a candidate who has had a great deal of experience running organizations, which can be a valuable asset when it comes to managing an association as complex as ours? Or do you value more highly psychiatrists who bring new ideas from the world outside health care systems and organized medicine? How important is it to you that your leaders be skilled public speakers, media spokespersons, and teachers of the public? In any contest there will be candidates who are high energy, full of ideas, and thrive under pressure—is that what you’re looking for? Some candidates learned to play well with others in the sandbox, while others are still trying to master the skill; does that make a difference to you? Not every candidate would set the same priorities for the use of APA resources; what are yours?

Candidates differ on all of these dimensions and others. Given this diversity of traits, whom we choose to lead us makes an enormous difference.

Perhaps members care about these differences, but are frustrated by the lack of information they have about candidates. Unlike in national or even local elections, where persons running for office become familiar faces on our television sets, their records dissected and their every pronouncement parsed, the majority of members have little contact with APA candidates. To be sure, their pictures and statements appear in Psychiatric News—as they do in this issue—and most candidates these days have Web sites where they post additional information. But there tends to be a sameness to candidates’ statements (when was the last time you saw a candidate for APA office declare support for managed care and psychologist prescribing?), and it is often hard to judge from their written words alone what kind of leaders they would be.

There are, of course, many ways to find out more about the candidates for national APA office. Every candidate lists contact information on the APA Web site and on their sites. Members can e-mail, write, or call them to find out what they think about the issues that are of importance to them. Or they could talk to APA members who know the candidates, including their Assembly representatives and people who come from the candidates’ parts of the country. Since many officer candidates travel around the country to subspecialty and district branch meetings, a good number of members will have the opportunity to meet them and size them up face to face. Of course, seeking information in this way takes some effort—it is not quite as simple as watching advertisements during breaks in a football game. But the returns in being able to cast a meaningful vote are substantial.

I have not canvassed the full panoply of possibilities for the low turnout in our elections. I understand that Americans as a nation are withdrawing from involvement in organized activities, preferring, as sociologist Robert Putnam would put it, to "bowl alone." But I doubt that same phenomenon accounts for the diminishing interest in APA elections. Ballots go out only to APA members—those psychiatrists who have chosen to join together to fight for our common interests and to derive the benefits of a professional association. One might think, therefore, that they would be particularly likely to participate actively in selecting their leaders. That fewer than one-third do so is perplexing, but it must relate to something more than just a generalized withdrawal from social intercourse.

If you think other factors are involved, please write me and let me know. Moreover, if you have thoughts about what we should do about it, I’d like to hear that too. Some professional organizations don’t hold contested elections, at least for their highest offices. Others limit campaigning much more than we do. Would these changes help? Or is there something else that would make a difference?

Meanwhile, we’ve got an election to run. This year, your vote is particularly important. On the ballot are Bylaws changes that would reduce the size of the Board of Trustees by two positions, roughly 10 percent of the voting members. The changes, approved by the Board, are an effort to improve the Board’s functioning and to reduce its cost. I suspect an overwhelming number of members would approve of this initiative. But unless at least one-third of members cast ballots, the amendment will fail—even if all of those voting support the measure.

So when that ballot comes, please vote. Vote by paper ballot or, if it’s easier, vote on the Internet (if you do, you save APA the cost of receiving and processing your ballot). I’m tempted to urge you to vote early and often—but let’s save that for another time. This year, just vote. Please. ▪

Anchor for JumpAnchor for JumpSoon after the new year, tens of thousands of ballots will go out in the mail to APA members. But if experience is any guide, only a small percentage of them will be returned. This is, in the words of the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The King and I," "a puzzlement." Why do so few members exercise their franchise in selecting the leaders of this organization and in setting APA policy?

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