The way we see the world depends a lot on what we’re watching – either intentionally or what’s jammed in front of our faces. I spent the early part of my journalism career as a business reporter and editor, watching intentionally the issues specific to the business community. I didn’t pay much attention to local government issues, unless their intersection with business put them right under my nose.
Over the years, my worldview changed. We founded The Chronicle in part because we felt that our local government deserves more media coverage on an intentional, routine basis, not just when a perceived “scandal” surfaces.
So Chronicle coverage routinely includes details of how local government bureaucracy works, what decisions are being made, who’s making them and why, and how taxpayer money is being spent.
Unlike decisions made at the national level, it’s conceivable in a community the size of Ann Arbor – or even the whole of Washtenaw County – for individuals to understand and influence what happens here, especially if they’re armed with information.
In November 2008, after its launch a couple of months earlier, The Chronicle covered its first election. The presidential race between Obama and McCain sparked passion and drew crowds to the polls in Ann Arbor, most of them voting for Barack Obama.
I was reminded of that exhilarating night this last Tuesday, when I spent much of the day dropping in on polling sites in Ann Arbor’s primary elections for city council in Wards 2, 3 and 5.
Last Tuesday, I didn’t see much passion and there were no crowds. No lines at the polls, no dancing in the streets. It didn’t feel like many people were paying attention.
In fact, several poll workers told me it was the lowest turnout they could recall – and some of them had worked the polls for decades. By the numbers, 3,931 people voted in the three wards, out of 46,797 total registered voters. That’s 8.4%. There were no primaries in Wards 1 and 4 because there were no challengers to the incumbent Democrats, no Republican candidates in Ward 1, and only one Republican in the Ward 4 primary.
There was even a precinct where not one person showed up to vote – Ward 2, Precinct 2, with a polling station in Palmer Commons, on the University of Michigan campus. That’s not the only time in recent memory no one has voted in Precinct 2-2. The same thing happened in the 2005 Democratic primary, contested between Eugene Kang and Stephen Rapundalo.
So poll workers last Tuesday had time on their hands – they’d been advised to bring reading material. And we saw many of them with library books, as well as a few with laptops or iPads. Some of their conversation turned to the low turnout. Two common theories emerged: Public apathy, and the lack of a daily printed newspaper.
Over the past few days, I’ve thought about those theories. Something about them sounds more like an excuse than a reason. Yet I lack an alternative explanation.
An Ode to Public Places
One of the things I’ve grown to love about election days is the chance to visit as many polling locations as possible, to check out democracy in action. It’s better if the weather is dry – I ride my red Honda Ruckus, and a scooter isn’t the best transportation when it’s raining.
I’ll admit the view from the seat of a scooter is not as exotic as the vantage point Ann Arbor city clerk Jackie Beaudry enjoyed earlier this year when she observed elections in in Kazakhstan – but I’ll take it.
On Tuesday, we dropped by 19 of the 25 polling stations in Wards, 2, 3 and 5 – spanning the city’s geography from Lakewood Elementary to the west, to St. Paul’s Lutheran School to the east, from University Townhouses to the south, to Clague Middle School in the north.
It’s not just an opportunity quite literally to witness the process by which our government representatives are elected. Our tour of the polls also takes us to places I don’t usually go in my travels through town, winding through neighborhoods that I don’t visit in my normal routine. They’re neighborhoods that rarely even get a mention in The Chronicle’s Stopped.Watched. feature.
Schools play host to many of the polling stations. Because I don’t have children, I almost never have cause to walk down hallways lined with abstract finger-painted pictures, with nameplates on the classroom doors for “Mrs. Green” or “Mr. Smith.”
In the hallway of Lakewood Elementary, a cage was rustling with five baby chicks – a handmade poster above the cage told me their names: Goldie, Fluffy, Autumn, Hermione and Pip! Outside of Scarlett Middle School, a Project Grow community garden is fenced off next to the parking lot, lush with sunflowers, tomatoes and other plants nearing harvest. These are vignettes of the community I likely wouldn’t have noticed, were it not for my election-day travels.
Not every polling station is located in a school. Of the 25 polling stations, 17 were located in public schools, one in a private school, two at University of Michigan sites, two at housing complexes, two at churches and one at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.
I like the connection between elections and schools, or other public places. These locations serve as a reminder of our role as citizens, and of the connection between the people we elect, the taxes we pay, and the tangible work – ideally, for the public good – that gets done as a result: Schools and sewers, streets and stoplights, police and parks.
Going to the polls at least a couple of times each year also serves as a touchstone, grounding us in a sense of place. Few other rituals are so inclusive, or draw together people who are otherwise bounded only by the random physical proximity of their homes, and require of us a common experience. It’s an experience that requires at least some acknowledgement that while we are in many ways singular, we are also intertwined into a larger community in which we all have a stake.
Absentee voting is no doubt more convenient – as online voting would be – but we lose something if we abandon the physical act of schlepping ourselves to the polls. My husband related an anecdote about a friend, visiting last week from Tacoma, Wash., after moving there from Ann Arbor. The Tacoma resident reported that after casting his ballot in Washington’s vote-by-mail system, reading The Chronicle’s field reports from the polls on election day made him nostalgic for that experience.
While convenience would likely move the needle of participation, it wouldn’t significantly change the lack of engagement that the Aug. 2, 2011 turnout reflects. After all, we turned out in droves for the November 2008 election, didn’t we? Almost 69% of registered voters in Washtenaw County cast ballots then. Why can’t we aspire to those numbers – or more – every time?
So Where Are the Voters?
I’m guessing that more people shopped at Briarwood Mall on Tuesday than travelled to their Ann Arbor polling station to vote. Maybe it’s because the view of ourselves as consumers is what’s reflected back to us from nearly every angle. It’s a view reflected through advertising, of course, but also from our nation’s political leaders, who regularly cite the need to spur consumer spending as the key to fixing our economy.
On the other hand, our role as citizens is generally underplayed. Few people aspire to know who represents them on the city council or the county board, let alone understand what’s on a city council agenda or to sit through a county board meeting.
Attending a local government meeting is akin to homework, for many people. It’s a common assignment for high school civics classes – and I can tell you from personal observation, those kids who come to see the county board or city council in action don’t seem to be approaching the task with the idea that they’re witnessing something important. They seem to view it as a punishment, unavoidable and boring, something that can be endured only by taking frequent breaks to send text messages to friends. Based on the turnout at the polls on Tuesday, many of their parents likely feel the same way.
These same parents, however, probably have strong opinions about national issues and politicians. They might not be able to name their city councilmembers, know what ward they live in, or name one important local issue facing the community, but they’ll be passably conversant about any number of national or international issues. Ask about the national debt ceiling, the war in Afghanistan, the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan – and you’ve got a conversation. Ask about TIF capture in the DDA district and you’ll get a blank stare.
So how can we bring at least the same level of conversational competence about national issues to the level of local government? Efforts underway in other sectors might serve as models to help meet this goal.
In the economic sector, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of focusing on your local community. That’s reflected in groups like Think Local First, formed to highlight locally-owned businesses in Washtenaw County, or Slow Food Huron Valley, which focuses on the local food economy – tapping into the “locavore” movement. Another example is described in the recent edition of the magazine Fast Company, which featured a Q&A with Amy Cortese, author of “Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing.” She discusses the premise first floated by Slow Money founder Woody Tasch, who advocates for investing 50% of your assets within 50 miles of where you live.
The same approach applied to local government – a “locavote” movement – would mean a concerted effort to draw attention to the actions of our elected representatives and government staff who are closest to home. Those are the people you actually have a chance of meeting at the grocery or gas station – the people who are making decisions that directly affect where you live, the schools where your children learn, the condition of your street, the safety of your neighborhood.
That kind of interest might also encourage more people to participate by actually running for local office. The fact that Ann Arbor voters often don’t have a choice on the ballot is astonishing, especially for a city with a reputation for political activism.
I’m not suggesting we turn our backs on state or national issues. I believe many of the problems our nation faces today can be traced back to a lack of attention to all levels of government. But we’ve been eating dessert – that is, we’ve been spending too much time as consumers, not citizens. Now it’s time, as Obama said last month regarding the national debt crisis, to “eat our peas.” Peas grown locally, of course.
I personally love peas, but I’m not sure what might compel more people to eat up. Nonpartisan elections? Online voting? Declaring election day a holiday? All of these things might help get people to the table, but it won’t guarantee they’ll bring an appetite. And it’s a sustained hunger for knowing and understanding your local government – not just on election day, but throughout the year – that will make our community stronger.
Back to Tuesday’s primary elections.
At King Elementary, polling location for Ward 2, Precinct 7, I spent some time in the teachers lounge, working on my laptop to file an update. Posted on a bulletin board was a sign that seemed both ominous and cheery – I took a photo of its admonition: “We’re watching you! Please clean up your mess! Thanks!”
Mess? For the record, I did not leave a mess. But turning up to the polls, like anything in the real world, can be a little messy. Your ballot might not be accepted by the AutoMARK machine on the first try. You might forget your photo ID. Somebody’s kid might spill juicy-juice down your leg. If enough people show up, you might have to wait in a messy line.
That’s actually a goal to which we might aspire: Let there be lines at the polls. In that line you might have to stand next to someone you don’t know and make awkward, messy small talk: “So, you come here often?” But you might see someone you haven’t seen in years – “Hey, you’re not dead, yet!” If nothing else, polls are an odd, endearing social opportunity.
The general election falls on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Voters in every Ann Arbor ward except Ward 1 will have a choice for city council on the ballot. [That assumes Jane Lumm is successful in getting 100 signatures on her nominating petitions as an independent candidate in Ward 2.] To find your polling place, type in an address on the My Property page of the city of Ann Arbor’s website, and click on the Voter tab.
I’m guessing Chronicle readers probably already know where to vote.
But Chronicle readers might not have a get-out-the-vote conversational opener in their repertoire. So here’s a suggestion for the next time you’re at a neighborhood block party, at your place of worship, at your exercise class, or standing in line at the grocery store. Try this simple gambit: “November is a local election, right? So where is it exactly that you vote?”
Come November, I hope to see more of you and your friends at the polls.
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