On one unseasonably warm day in December 1975, two candidates vying for the mayoralty of Clyde Hill, WA, a 3200-strong suburb sandwiched between Seattle and Bellevue, met in the office of the King County Superintendent of Elections. Against all odds, the normal course of count and recount in the scheduled November election had exhausted itself and the true result seemed to be a tie.
It’s probably more symptom than cause of anything in particular, but I find it hard to ignore the ways in which close elections, and the mechanisms used to finally decide them, have become critical historical focusing points of late. Among the notables:
- The famous decision of Bush v Gore mostly concerned the extent to which an uneven application of recount rules violated Floridians’ right to equal protection under the law, and in so doing, ended a presidential election.
- Amid a helter-skelter spurred by a poorly designed iPad app, Pete Buttigieg claimed an uncertain victory in the Iowa caucuses and punched his eventual ticket to the top of the Department of Transportation, which spends more in a year than Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Cisco, or Pepsi earn in sales.
- Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s embattled Secretary of State, made his staff recount the votes in the 2020 election by hand, a savvy bit of political theater which led to only the minutest change in the final margin of victory, as all recounts do.
- Memes and forum-level jousting about the timing of ballot dumps in Michigan led, among other things, to a Trumpist insurrectionary siege of the Capitol just six weeks ago.
But set that all aside for a second and put yourself in the mind of a Pacific Northwest voter in late 1975. Richard Nixon had only a few years prior taken 49 states to win a second term, including your own of Washington, where an incumbent Governor Daniel Evans cruised his way to an 8-point reelection.
Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live had premiered, Queen had released “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bill Gates had written down the name “Micro-soft” for the first time, and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had just sank in Lake Superior, though you’d have to wait a few more months to hear a killer ballad about it.
Close elections were not really part of your world – Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman could even easily fend off a recall election brought that same year by disgruntled city unions. Such thinking is probably what led Miles Nelson, one of the two would-be mayors in the Superintendent’s office that day, to asses that his would-be constituents “didn’t know there was a choice. They didn’t vote intelligently”. Probably for the best, then, that it was Nelson who called “Heads” while the flip was up and won the gavel in Clyde Hill.
Incumbent head honcho Liberino Tufarolo, who had called “Tails,” was despondent after the loss was settled, and slipped out of the room “quietly commenting that maybe it was time for someone else to take over.” New Mayor Nelson was all smiles, picking up calls from media colossi like the New York Times, NBC News, and People magazine as well as from local dailies in Maine and eastern PA.
In a way, this story has a fair ending, since neither man tried his hands at Clyde Hill politics again – Nelson followed his predecessor into retirement after finishing his term in 1979. But I think the story resounds today for what it has to say about the media and local government.
No one votes in local elections, then as much as now. Certain future President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat representing 700,000 New Yorkers by dint of a primary election in which 27,700 votes were cast. Los Angeles once had to resort to issuing cash prizes to those who voted in Board of Education elections. Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at UCSD, pegs the number of voters who participate in municipal elections at around 25%, but that still comes off too optimistic to me.
Dr. Hajnal has an easy partial fix to this phenomenon: aligning the scads of important but boring municipal elections on the calendar with the important and exciting presidential elections. And while I’m sure that’s a prudent and effective way of engineering higher turnout in critical local votes, I’ve got a better idea: make the TV trucks show up.
By way of example, the 94th District of Virginia represents Newport News, a stone’s throw from where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. In 2017, the election of a representative to the state’s House of Delegates was decided – you guessed it – by the drawing of lots from a film canister.
A Republican, David Yancey, won what ended up being quite the consequential draw, for it allowed Republicans to retain control of one chamber of the state legislature. Amid the frothy media blitz which covered the drawing, and the two Trump years which followed, Democrats pressed enough interest into normally low-turnout House of Delegates elections to take the majority, securing trifecta control of Virginia politics for the first time in twenty-five years. Shelly Simonds, who had drawn the short straw in 2017, beat Yancey by 16 points in their rematch.
We are without a doubt in the midst of a crucial realignment period for both parties and politics more broadly in this country, with no one really sure who is calling the shots anywhere. These battles will be fought less in the normal battlegrounds of Florida retirement communities or Rust Belt suburbs and increasingly in the loci of dynamic change like Seattle, paired with Denver as the two fastest growing cities north of Tennessee.
The population of metro Seattle has already increased by 300% since Miles Nelson’s election as Mayor of Clyde Hill. As the city continues to add residents in perpetuity, voters in these after-thought municipal elections will end up wielding significant power. So much of success is just showing up – future you doesn’t want to find yourself quoting Fry from Futurama:
On the other hand, maybe the lesson is less “go vote in local elections” and more “maybe random processes aren’t so bad at picking officials”. The Athenians did it, and the French are trying it out as a means of fostering more public trust in the COVID-19 vaccine. It even has a cool name: sortition. Tim Dunlop, an Australian writer, included the practice among his list of “big audacious ideas for a better world”.
Consider me unconvinced, however. Usually the combo of a funny Greek-derived word and random sampling is enough to win me over, but I find it sort of solving the problem downstream to do away with elections entirely. There’s not a lot any one of us can do to change the course of our country, or save the planet, or arrest some giant machinations of capital and illicit power, but your neighborhood is just the right size for you to make an impact in. Even as we turn the page from a contentious election and look forward to going back to brunch, please, remember to vote.