In November 2009, 12,648 voters decided who would lead the city of Asheville.
To put those numbers in perspective, that’s 19.6 percent of the city’s registered voters or roughly one in five. To put it in starker terms: this number is the lowest turnout ever in a municipal election, beating 2007’s city council elections for that dubious honor. Despite economic difficulties, a mayoral race (albeit a rather one-sided one) and two of the victors putting their emphasis on large volunteer operations, four out of five Asheville voters chose to stay at home.
Looking closer at the numbers, the picture doesn’t improve. Montford, often touted as an activist hotbed, only narrowly exceeded the average, with a 20 percent turnout. Its citizenry came out comparatively well, the city’s other four most populous precincts saw turnout at or under the city average.
Minority voters turned out by lower percentages, with only 15.6 percent of black voters showing up to the polls, and just 10 percent of Hispanic voters.
It’s true that many voters don’t show up for municipal elections, even during hotly contested years. Still, added to 2007’s decline (22 percent of the city’s voters turned out for that race), this represented a fairly rapid drop in public participation in elections.
However, you wouldn’t have known it by the rhetoric.
“We rocked this city tonight!” newly elected council member Cecil Bothwell proclaimed at his victory celebration.
“I think the voters are a true reflection of Asheville,” Esther Manheimer said, adding. “I think the people have given City Council a mandate.”
This was something of a change in attitude for Manheimer. After her primary victory a scant few weeks earlier, she called the low turnout a challenge, and declared “it’s our job to reach people, to get them to the polls by any means necessary.”
Twitter was all a-twitter, both during the primary and general elections, with proclamations of Asheville’s grassroots coming of age and similar such hyperbole.
This isn’t to speak for or against the policies of anyone elected that night, but the victory talk needs to be tempered, four months on, by some cold facts that tell a far different story: it is absolutely absurd to pretend that a large drop in voter turnout represents a triumph of popular activism.
The fact is: the voters who turned out represented the will of the majority of a very small segment of the city. That’s who our newly elected city council, right or wrong, were given a mandate by. Right or wrong, nineteen percent does not a city make.
Now, I encourage all voters to study the issues, consider the candidates and cast their ballots in every election, and apathy is one possible explanation for the abysmal numbers. Certainly plenty of citizens and candidates worked hard in the election, and cared about the issues.
But another possibility is that voters don’t pay attention to elections if they don’t see their concerns represented by any of the discussion or platforms. If that happens in multiple elections, they begin to ignore city politics entirely.
I observe a tendency in this town, among all sides of the political spectrum, to assume that their friends are representative of the entire city. There is much talk of “the community,” which usually just means “my group.” But the city is not any single community and if its leaders proceed under the assumption that their allies represent the whole, they will remain blind to pressing problems and concerns until it is far too late.
So, as our city government gets into the meat of some difficult challenges, it’s worth asking some equally difficult questions.
Who isn’t getting heard? Why?
Why do increasing swaths of the voting public not feel the need to cast a ballot?
And, most importantly; how does that change?