Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Voting Local

My town’s population is about 17,000. About 10,500 of those people are registered voters. In yesterday’s nonpartisan municipal primary election, fewer than 1,800 of those people voted. The results show that each vote cast in this type of election carries more value than a vote cast in just about any other election in which I can participate.

As I mentioned in this post, the incumbent two-term mayor was running for re-election. He was being opposed by two men. One has served a couple of terms on the city council. The other is a well known libertarian that has long posed quite publicly as a contrarian to many city policies.

Let me say up front that I am personally acquainted with all three of these men. The incumbent mayor is a former neighbor and personal friend. I have worked with the council member in Scouting and am on a first name basis with him. The libertarian fellow used to be one of my church leaders and I know one of his sons pretty well. I think admirably of each of these men, each in his own way.

The outcome of this three-way race was tight. The libertarian garnered 36% of the vote. The city council member got 34%. And the incumbent mayor pulled about 30%.

Although the vote was close (the libertarian got only 114 more votes than the incumbent mayor), the incumbent mayor is out of the running. The outcome of the race might have been different had the turnout of registered voters been nominally higher. But the fact is that 70% of those that voted opposed the incumbent.

I’m not sure how much of this is due to specific opposition to this mayor and how much is due to general anti-incumbent sentiment. If it is due to such a general outlook, why did so many voters favor the city council member? Doesn’t his service on the council make him sort of an incumbent too? After all, his record does not imply that he would act much differently than the incumbent mayor on most things.

Many political observers have noted that voters often apply their dissatisfaction with their national government to politicians at the local level, even while they continue to support their own congressional representative and senators. It’s an odd phenomenon that seems to reflect some cognitive dissonance. Malcontent with national level profligacy is running very high in my area right now, and I wonder how much this impacted my city’s mayoral race.

In the post referenced above I mainly discussed the municipal swimming pool. I am certain that this influenced the mayoral race, but issues are so deeply intertwined that I’m not sure that it can be treated as a unique factor in the race. Perhaps a larger correlated issue is the fact that the mayor has supported tax increases in each year of his current term. While he assures citizens that he has worked to minimize the size of those increases, I sense that many of the most active voters simply don’t buy this line.

Then again, if tax increases are the issue, why did so many voters support the council member, given that he has voted in favor of the same increases that the mayor pushed? 64% of the voters in this race voted for a candidate that actively supported tax increases in each of the last four years.

I will be watching the November general election with extreme interest. General elections tend to attract a different mix of voters than do primary elections. General election voters tend to be more moderate and less ideological than primary voters.

For that reason, I believe that it will be difficult for the libertarian fellow to gain a majority in November. His supporters were highly motivated in the primary election. This means that a larger percentage of his supporters voted in the primary, which would leave a smaller percentage of supporters in the general.

Moreover, I believe that the vast majority of the primary voters that supported the incumbent mayor will switch their votes to the council member rather than to the libertarian in November. Many moderate voters dislike stridency in politics. It would seem reasonable to assume that many moderates will find the polemic libertarian “change” message too strong for their tastes. A lot of voters are kind of freaked out about change right now. The status quo doesn’t sound too bad to them.

My town will see more voters turn out in November, but I’d be surprised if we doubled the 17% of registered voters that turned out for the primary election. Although municipal elections impact voters much more directly than state or national elections, many voters strangely tune out local elections because no president, governor, senator, or representative is on the ballot. If anything, it would seem to make more sense for voters to ignore these higher level races where each vote count for very little, while making sure to vote in the local races where individual votes are much more meaningful.

Perhaps this odd state of affairs exists because of heavy media support and the celebrification of higher level races. Maybe we have succeeded in conveying the message through our education, civic, and media institutions that one qualifies as a good citizen by voting in higher level races, while local races are left out of this loop. Maybe these local races just seem mundane (except for the occasional big conflict) in comparison to the more glamorous races.

Besides the mayoral race, five were running for two city council seats in my city. None of these were incumbents. I was unsurprised to see that the fellow with the greatest name recognition as a popular seminary teacher polled the highest, and that the man that put up no signs polled the lowest. The man that received the second highest number of votes is young, but he did a better job of campaigning than all of the other four candidates combined. He had good literature and a clear message, and he came across as competent.

Of the four candidates that seriously campaigned for the two council seats, two campaigned chiefly on fiscal responsibility, while the other two focused on their qualifications for managing future growth. The growth managers polled significantly lower than the two promoters of fiscal responsibility. While popularity and campaign quality certainly impacted these races, I believe that the message is quite clear as to which matters are of greater concern to the average primary voter in my city.

The general election may bring different results, but my gut instinct tells me that the two guys that came out on top in the primary election will also carry the general election. This would pit the two council newbies against the three established council members that think that they’re being fiscally responsible by raising taxes. I wonder how long it will take the fiscal hawks to turn into tax-and-spenders.

While state and national level races enjoy a higher profile, I wish voters would recognize that they have far more power at the local level. Not only do their votes actually count for something at this echelon, local policies have a much more direct impact on their daily lives than do higher level policies.

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