The new year has started and the last thing anyone wants to hear about is elections. Warner Robins just finished with its last round last month with a runoff deciding a citywide council seat, but in 2018 there will be plenty to talk about, but will anyone be listening?
The election season for some communities won’t kick off until March and April with the General Primary Elections, Nonpartisan General Elections and Special Elections to be held May 22, but elections is not what this column is about. Well, it is and it isn’t.
I’m always shocked when the vote tallies come rolling in. For example, in the last city election in Warner Robins, where voters sent Randy Toms back to City Hall for a second term, only 6,766 of 39,126 registered voters bothered to go to the polls. The one excuse that drives me straight over the cliff is, “My vote won’t count.”
For those who might feel that way, let me introduce you to Shelly Simonds and David Yancey. You don’t know them because they aren’t from around here, but if you said to them that your single vote wouldn’t count, you’d probably get slapped.
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Simonds and Yancey were both running for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 94th District. Simonds, the Democrat, was trying to unseat Yancey, the Republican. Political parties, for this particular discussion, don’t matter much. It mattered to the House of Delegates because the winner would decide whether Republicans would retain control of the body or have to share power after having a 32-seat advantage.
Initially, it looked as though Simonds, a school board member in Newport News, had won by the slimmest of margins — one vote. But the next day, a three-judge recount court allowed a ballot that had been disqualified to be counted. The voter had filled in the bubble for both candidates, but the judges noticed the voter had put a slash through Simonds’ name. With that vote added each candidate tallied 11,607 votes.
Oh, what to do? They could have flipped a coin, drawn straws or pulled out a deck of cards. If this had been in colonial times they could have had a duel and whoever survived would be the winner. Fortunately, Virginia law spells out the process. Thursday, they printed each candidate’s name on a piece of paper and put each name in an old film canister, dropped them in a bowl, swirled them around and drew one out (you can’t see inside the canisters). The winner? Yancey.
Can you imagine, running for office as hard as you can and having it all come down to a 50-50 chance of winning because of a tie vote? A tie vote because someone in the 94th District didn’t think their vote would count.
Could something like that happen here? Certainly, there have been several races around Middle Georgia decided by a handful of votes and we don’t have to look very far or wide. Milledgeville just swore in its first female mayor, Mary Parham-Copelan. Her margin of victory over the incumbant, Gary Thrower? Three votes.
In Roberta, Sherry Thompson won the City Council, Post 2 race by three votes. Everywhere we turn there is ample evidence that every vote counts. There is also mountains of evidence that show our civic engagement, particularly among young people, to be at an all time low.
Everything is generational. When I turned 18 there were two things I knew I needed to do. One I wanted to do, the other, I had to do by law. I registered to vote and have cast a ballot in every election, no matter how small and insignificant, since 1970. And I registered for the draft. There are numbers you never forget: birthday, Social Security and your draft lottery number.
I’m sure I will continue to be astounded by the lack of participation in our civic process. According to a 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, only 26 percent of respondents could name the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial). What’s really bad but 31 percent couldn’t name any.
Can we do better in 2018?