Column: Paying Attention at the Polls

Low election turnout signals need for "locavote" movement

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.

Sign at Scarlett Middle School polling station

A sign at Scarlett Middle School polling station for the Aug. 2, 2011 Ann Arbor city council primary election. (Photos by the writer.)

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.

Chicks at Lakewood

Baby chicks in the hall at Ann Arbor's Lakewood Elementary School.

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.

Sign in an Ann Arbor elementary school teachers lounge

Sign posted in an Ann Arbor elementary school teachers lounge, down the hall from a polling station for the Aug. 2, 2011 primary election. Unlike the writer of this sign, it didn't seem like many people were watching democracy in action on Tuesday.

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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  1. August 9, 2011 at 9:52 am | permalink

    Thank you for this lovely meditation. I agree; to me voting is like a civic sacrament, never to be missed.

    To your point about dancing in the streets: We weren’t exactly dancing, but you missed the celebration at Mike Anglin’s party at the Wolverine, where we sang in part,

    “The polls are closed, the results are in
    Help us celebrate a Great Big Win…We’re gonna vote, gonna vote, Mike Anglin in tonight.” (Sung to tune of Rock Around the Clock)

    To your point about localization, a fervent cheer also. A member of our community, UM professor Thomas Princen, has been leading students in discussing this concept (an upcoming book features readings about it) and I heard his lecture a couple of years ago in which he stated a number of principles for localization. One was

    “Place-based Decisionmaking Principle:…This “residential” principle says that people who live and work in a community are
    more likely to represent community values, be dependent on the coherence and durability of the community in place, and know that place.”

    I think that gets to your point.

  2. By Keith Orr
    August 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    Great article.

    I posted a FB status on Wednesday a.m. from Cooperstown, NY that I had voted, while racing to get to the airport. I was aghast that 92% of registered voters who were not all racing to the airport, could not find time to vote, and commented that this was what was wrong with our government, we collectively get what we vote for.

    And then I was out of the motel room all day.

    I came back to a rather lengthy back-and-forth heated discussion…entirely based on national issues.

    It all starts at the local level. That same 92% is going to complain for the next two years about City Council. If you didn’t vote, I’m not really interested in hearing your complaints.

  3. August 9, 2011 at 6:55 pm | permalink

    I’m all in favor of making Election Day a holiday.

  4. By liberalnimby
    August 9, 2011 at 9:43 pm | permalink

    Wonderful piece—thank you. This is part of the reason I subscribe!

    I’m curious how our voting and candidate participation rates compare with peer cities. I’m not sure how many of them have partisan local elections (I’m guessing none), so the comparison may be difficult. (Can anyone out there make a case for maintaining this system?)

    I do know that a neighbor who is relatively knowledgeable about local goings-on had this to say, “The primaries were on Tuesday?!” Personal feelings aside, I would posit that our current election schedule unfairly favors the candidates with an axe to grind against the perceived council majority.

  5. By John Floyd
    August 10, 2011 at 3:28 am | permalink


    1) This primary election was held at the sleepiest time of year. Many folks are on vacation in August, physically or metaphysically (i.e. in the back yard with an adult beverage). For many folks, it’s hard to get worked up over anything in August.

    2) While there are exceptions from time to time, I don’t associate primary elections with broad public engagement or passion. As elections to select party nominees for the general election, primary elections are set up to to be dominated by political junkies (an NPR phrase), whatever their persuasion. The fact that Michigan primaries are open – anyone can vote in either party’s election – does not seem to change this dynamic. Judging by turnout, the public seems to think that the real elections are supposed to be in November.

    3) In most localities, people don’t vote with their ballots – they vote with their feet. The work of bringing change to local government is difficult, sometimes odious, can take years, and requires the abandonment of at least some of one’s current activities, personal or professional. Moving to a house in Scio – twice the house on twice the land as a city home, with city water and sewer, mailing address, and schools, but only 2/3 the taxes – may be more attractive than giving up months of standing bridge nights to figure out who among a field of pretenders to the local thrones are the least dishonest or delusional.

    When is the last time you heard someone, living just outside the city limits, express their desire to be annexed into Ann Arbor? When is the last time someone you knew moved out of Ann Arbor to Pittsfield or Scio?

    Voting with ones feet can be easier path to a rational choice than voting with a ballot. Ann Arbor is geographically small enough that a home 15 minutes or less from Huron & Main can be outside city limits. For many people, there are few downsides to a Pittsfield address, and it lessens the need to pay attention to people they may not want to know.

    4) I suspect that part of the upset over low primary turnouts for Ann Arbor offices is that there are few/no truly contested November elections in Ann Arbor. The Democratic primary is, effectively, the general election. Truly contested November elections would take much of the heat of expectations off of the August primary.

    5) The Chron performs invaluable civic service by providing “local government…media coverage on an intentional, routine basis…” This is the stuff of which self-governance is made. Thank you for taking on this mission, and this topic. It is where everything else begins.

  6. By Steve Borgsdorf
    August 10, 2011 at 9:45 am | permalink

    Maybe low turnout indicates satisfaction with the goings-on in City Hall and not apathy. Or, like John Floyd points out, this was a primary race in August. Ho hum. And I’m puzzled by the assertion that “Ann Arbor voters often don’t have a choice on the ballot.” It seems to me that each election cycle brings a primary race, a contested general election, and a bevy of qualified candidates to boot.

  7. August 10, 2011 at 9:54 am | permalink

    If it wasn’t for the fact that I automatically get my ballot in the mail I wouldn’t vote in city elections at all 90% of the time. I bother with that minimal effort so I can bitch about stuff later with a clear conscience. Voting without any real choice is like eating food with any flavor. A boring chore rather an engaging experience.

  8. August 10, 2011 at 11:07 am | permalink

    I remember my mother complaining about her electoral choices, saying, “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them”. She was talking about John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon.

  9. By Joan Lowenstein
    August 10, 2011 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    I tend to agree with Steve. Most people are not up-in-arms about anything in particluar. In contrast, the Wisconsin recall vote yesterday had a huge voter turnout.

  10. August 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm | permalink

    To liberalnimby’s question about election schedules, I was having a similar conversation with a neighbor earlier this summer. Like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti has a city council that is 100% elected at the August Democratic Party primary. I voiced the opinion that this was an awkward time to expect good voter turnout generally, and it especially disadvantaged the sizable student population. One of the responses my neighbor raised was that a non-partisan, November ballot for City Council would be “different from how the rest of the state does things” and why should we set up a unique system?

    That of course spurred me to look for evidence one way or the other, and I found that the Ann Arbor/Ypsi system of partisan council races being de facto decided in August is really fairly unique. All of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne County municipalities appear to have non-partisan council elections, in which there’s still an August primary, but the top n candidates go on to the November ballot (where n is usually twice the number of open seats–most of those Counties’ cities also appear to have at-large Councils, rather than ward-based, so it’s not uncommon to have 6- or 8-way races when several seats are in play). I know Lansing is the same way, with some at-large and some ward-based Councilmembers, all elected on non-partisan November ballots.

  11. August 12, 2011 at 7:42 am | permalink

    John Floyd (#5) says, “When is the last time you heard someone, living just outside the city limits, express their desire to be annexed into Ann Arbor?”

    1643 S. State is in the process of being annexed at the owner’s request, but it’s not residential.

    1575 Alexandra Blvd was just annexed a couple months ago at the owner’s request. It is a single family residence.

    2562 Newport was annexed at the end of last year, at the resident owner’s request.

    These requests are usually made by people who want to take advantage of City water and sewer.

  12. By Steve Bean
    August 12, 2011 at 9:34 am | permalink

    Not to discount the thoughtfulness of previous comments, but I’ll offer another perspective.

    The problem with government, and therefore elections, is that it is intrinsically broken. Why make an effort to perpetuate something that’s never worked? To discuss democracy while failing to note that the product of government (all around the world for all time since its invention) has been a lack of democracy is another example of how easily distracted from living life we’ve been conditioned to be.

    Even the well intentioned focus on local decision making overlooks this. A city of this size is too large for meaningful, workable decisions to be made for all.

    The activity in the financial markets might just help alert us to how off track we’ve gotten. For whatever reason, the problems with our life support system–the so-called “environment”–haven’t, however. I wonder what it will take.

  13. August 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    I love schools too, which is good since I am a teacher :) The closing of neighborhood schools is devastating to neighborhoods, esp. in the D where I teach. My school has been there since 1917 and if it indeed closes at the end of this year, that neighborhood will take a huge hit.

    That said, I remember reading that you used to be able to vote at pubs…how much fun would THAT be!?!? :)

  14. By Barbara Carr
    August 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm | permalink

    Thank you, Mary, for this thoughtful and thought provoking article.It demonstrates why we love you! The comments are also thoughtful and interesting, not just smart alecky responses as so often appear in this format. I just wish we could have more people reading the thinking about what you write.

  15. August 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm | permalink

    Very Thoughtful Column. President Obama is his memo on “Transparency and Open Government” said, “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing”, and, like the Chronicle, Community Television Network (CTN) believes that “local government deserves more media coverage on an intentional basis”.

    Whether it is the over 200 live gavel to gavel meetings we cover every year, or the DDA, AATA, or County board meetings we present on GovTV (Comcast 16), or “Ward Talk’s” live monthly opportunity to ask questions of your Mayor or Councilperson, or the twice monthly “Conversations” with your elected representatives from the United States Congress, the Congress of State of Michigan, Washtenaw County Commission, the Ann Arbor District Library, the Ann Arbor Board of Education or officals in city and county government on CitiTV (Comcast 19), CTN has through the years delivered an ever increasing palette of programs to inform and educate our citizenry and to support the idea that open dialogue and transparency are a basic tenet of democracy.

    For two decades CTN has partnered with the Ann Arbor League of Women Voters to bring you live candidate debates, delivering a specturm of races from City Council & Mayor to Board of Educations Trustees, right into your living rooms on Comcast Cable Channel 19 (CitiTV).

    We also provide our programming on the internet for non-Comcast subscribers through our online Video-On-Demand services. GovTV meetings can be found 24/7 at [link] and CitiTV programming at [link]. Earlier this year we launch Live Streaming of GovTV, the government meetings channel at [link], so now it can be viewed live anywhere in the world an internet signal is available. This fall we plan to have CitiTV programming up live and streaming on the internet as well.

    And this is just half of our mission, visit us on the web at and learn about A2TV, your public access channel (Comcast 17), and EduTV (Comcast 18) the Educational access channel.

  16. By Alex
    August 24, 2011 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    The reason nobody voted in Ward 2, Precinct 2, is that it’s a dorm — and dorms are closed for the summer. The summer primary disenfranchises college students, period.