Tuesday was an election day, though it didn’t much feel like one. I mean, yes, it was a first Tuesday in November, and people were voting for candidates nationally, and I did stay up and switch back and forth between news channels to see who had won. And had people I was rooting for, and others I was rooting against. But we tend to think of election years as even-numbered years: 10, 12, 14, (shudder) 16, because of the national election cycle. This week was mostly a few mayoral races and a couple of gubernatorials.
But these odd-numbered years elections are particularly important, actually, with a far greater potential for mischief and malfeasance and kooky people actually winning. My wife picked me up to vote around 5:15 when she got off work–we actually arrived at the polls at about 5:25. (Our voting place is, I’m not kidding, a car dealership. I voted, and while I was at it, bought a new Dodge truck). (Not really). Anyway, that’s prime voting time–right when people get off work. Right? I expected, at the very least, to have to wait in line. Nope. Our local poll workers seemed lonely and bored, and we were able to vote without incident or delay. Only around fifteen percent of Provo registered voters made it to the polls, and of course lots of Provoans aren’t even registered.
My wife and I both supported John Curtis, the incumbent mayor, and he won in a landslide (86-14). We both think he’s done a good job. He brought Google Fiber to town–we’re one of the first pilot cities for that Google rollout. Downtown renovation is going swimmingly. Above all, we’re big fans of his work to outlaw predatory towing practices. Provo/Orem is home to two big universities, BYU and UVU, which means a lot of kids living in off-campus apartments. There’s not always enough parking, and towing companies roam the parking lots looking for student cars to tow, at owner’s expense. To my mind, this practice should be outlawed–it should be declared unconstitutional. Why should students be deprived of the use of their property–their cars–without due process? Previous mayors have yawned at the practice–John Curtis is opposed to it, and used his acceptance speech to highlight his opposition to it. As a Democrat living in oh-so-Republican Utah, it’s a rare thing for me to vote for a winning candidate–I enjoyed the experience.
There was also a City Council race we were interested in, between two guys named Dave Sewell and Ryan Frandsen. I’ve linked to the candidates’ websites, and you can see for yourself the differences: Sewell’s implies that Frandsen is in the pocket of PAC contributors; beholden to PAC money. Frandsen’s is much more positive, and more specific about both his qualifications and plans. I like, for example, the fact that Frandsen chaired the Provo Planning Commission. And I agree with his stand on BYU campus renovations, which he opposed, because they put a lot more pressure on traffic along 9th East. To me, it was an easy call, and my wife agreed–we voted for Frandsen. But it was a low-turnout election, and Sewell won, barely, by 65 votes. I don’t think Sewell would have won if turnout had been stronger. I think his implied attack on Frandsen’s integrity would have hurt him if more people had turned out.
Low turnout elections are dangerous. Local elections are dangerous anyway. I well remember a school board election back in my hometown of Bloomington Indiana. Mostly school board elections are non-partisan. This one year, though, I think it was 1988, a group of disgruntled local luminaries ran together for school board, calling themselves the All-Stars. They were headed by a beloved former high school football coach, Fred Huff, and included some local business people. Very well funded, they won, and promptly made a lot of controversial decisions, including firing assistant administrators and firing the school board’s attorneys, replacing them with local attorneys who had funded their campaign. The All-Stars were frankly sort of a disaster, as I recall. But local elections are, to my mind, much easier to game, much more susceptible to corruption and much less responsive to citizen needs. People tend to vote for whoever puts up the most yard signs, and that’s maybe not the best guide to competence. I don’t mean to imply that all voters in local elections are uninformed. But I often am–relying largely on my own reading of the candidates’ websites. And I look for tell-tale phrases suggesting fanaticism, ideology, or general ickiness. “Will stand up for Constitutional principles” says, to me, Tea Party: pass.
One of the big races on Tuesday was in Virginia, where Republican Ken Cuccinelli was up against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Both candidates were seriously flawed. McAuliffe had never held elected office before, but raised buckets of money, most of it from outside Virginia. He was for gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-gun control. Plus, he was perceived as corrupt, in part because of his ties to an electric car manufacturer in Misssissippi which was under federal investigation. Cuccinelli was a Tea Party conservative, a strident social conservative, far to the right of most Virginia voters on such hot-button issues as gay rights and abortion.
Most polls had McAuliffe with a huge lead: 14-18 points. On Tuesday, though, it was very close, with McAuliffe winning by 3.
My brother, Rob, was heavily invested in a local election as well. His local Arizona community, Vail, was trying to incorporate as a city. On Tuesday, in a referendum vote, that proposal was defeated. Rob was the leading spokesperson for Citizens for Vail.
A local publication, Inside Tucson Business published pro and con editorials on the Vail proposal. Read them both; they’re interesting. The con editorial is negative in tone; ‘your taxes are going up, people!’ It’s all fear tactics. The pro editorial admits that the pro-incorporation budget could be a little optimistic, and that a small property tax might become necessary, short-term. But given economic growth in the area, incorporation was almost certain to be good, long-term, for the people living in Vail. The two editorials reflect this dynamic–a county afraid of losing power, vs. citizens optimistic about the future of their community.
In a large turnout election, optimism about the future usually wins. In a low turnout election, short-term fear usually wins. Judgmental fanaticism often wins–and in Vail, an anti-Mormon, anti-incorporation whisper campaign got kinda nasty. The Vail election was a low turnout election. Incorporation lost. ‘Nasty’ and ‘paranoid’ won.
And in Virginia, the election was way closer than it ought to have been. McAuliffe won, but it was very tight, and Cuccinelli was ahead for most of the night, until the more liberal Northern Virginia districts began reporting. And in the race for Virginia Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring won by 541 votes, over his opponent Mark Obenshain. Obenshain was another extremist, the state legislator who proposed a bill that would require women who had a miscarriage to report it to the police. Hard to imagine that the good citizens of Virginia want that guy as their Attorney General, but again, in a low turnout election, the really super motivated voters are the ones who absolutely will show up on election day, and who therefore disproportionately decide things.
So think about people who really really really care a whole lot about politics. The ones who turn every single conversation, no matter what, to politics. The ones who, at parties, everyone sort of edges away from. The ones where, on your way home from the party, you joke to your spouse about. You know the people I’m talking about? The ones who you’ve learned not to respond to on Facebook, because they will blow up at you. The ones who you really wish had some loving person in their life who could in the kindest possible way suggest to them that maybe they should find some other topic of conversation, maybe. You know the folks I’m talking about?
If you don’t vote, their vote counts twice.
So, these little off-year elections, the ones in years that end in odd numbers? Go vote. Honestly, it doesn’t take long–half an hour tops–to do a little internet research and find their websites and figure out what the candidates stand for. Seriously: vote. They’ll give you a very nice sticker if you do.