Small-scale democracy: Small town elections offer intriguing possibilities, but few options

“The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”
— Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The affluent little town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, population 2,918, was rocked earlier this year when a surprise write-in candidate garnered 168 votes to displace an unopposed incumbent. The town attorney and Ethics Commission were called in to consider the legitimacy of the cunning, eleventh-hour move. Townspeople were shocked, and one commission member went so far as to declare that Chevy Chase had suffered “a trauma.” In fact, however, it’s surprising that this perfectly legal strategy isn’t employed more often.

Voter participation is typically hard to come by in municipal elections: Even in a medium-size city like Asheville, a handful of people can sway an important race. Meanwhile, a glance at Western North Carolina’s 2015 elections reveals a dearth of office-seekers. And when candidates can’t even be persuaded to run for office, how can the voters be expected to make choices?

Of the 35 incorporated cities, towns and villages smaller than Asheville in the nine counties where Mountain Xpress is distributed, 33 have elections this fall — and most of the available seats are uncontested. And even when there is a choice, there’s often only one more candidate than there are seats. Only 9 of those towns — Burnsville, Canton, Forest City, Hot Springs, Maggie Valley, Marshall, Sylva, Tryon and Waynesville — actually have enough candidates that at least half the contenders will fall short. Even Hendersonville, with 13,473 people the biggest municipality considered here, has just three candidates (two of them incumbents) for its two available City Council seats.

A lot of Buncombe

In Buncombe County, there are nine races this year, in addition to the much discussed, hotly contested Asheville City Council election: Biltmore Forest (mayor plus three Board of Commissioners seats), Black Mountain (three Board of Aldermen seats), Montreat (mayor plus two Board of Commissioners seats), Weaverville (three Town Council seats), Woodfin (mayor plus three Board of Aldermen seats) and Woodfin Sanitary Water and Sewer District trustee (three seats). Barring a write-in victory, however, six of those races were essentially decided when the filing period ended in June: For the 20 seats available in those towns, a mere 23 people have filed to run.

In Black Mountain, there are three alderman positions up for election. In a stark contrast to the 2011 field of 11 candidates, there are four candidates this year. Incumbents Maggie Tuttle, Larry Harris and Vice Mayor Don Collins are all seeking re-election; Rachel Allen, the lone challenger, hopes to unseat the weakest among them. Both Tuttle and Collins collected over 12 percent of the vote in 2011 while Harris was appointed to replace Michael Sobol on the Board of Aldermen after losing to him in the 2013 mayoral race.

Meanwhile, the little college town of Montreat, just north of Black Mountain, will elect at least one new commissioner this year. Challengers Bill Gilliland and Kitty Fouche have teamed up, sharing both a campaign manager and a campaign committee address, in an attempt to claim the open seat and displace incumbent Commissioner Martha Campbell.

After a single term as a commissioner, George Goosmann was elected mayor of Biltmore Forest, without opposition, in 2003, succeeding Mayor Ramona Rowe, who’d run unopposed in 1999 and 2001. Goosmann, who’s running against Jim Taylor, says the extent of his campaigning has been to “send a letter to the voting residents.” Taylor says he will do the same. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, Biltmore Forest, population 1,387, spent $3.8 million ($2,745 per capita) according to the state treasurer’s office. Asheville spent $1,698 per capita.

No game at all

If practically every candidate wins, does the electorate also lose?

With no opponents on the ballot, all of the Woodfin and Weaverville candidates will probably win.

Andrew Nagle, who drew the fewest votes in the 2011 Weaverville Town Council race, will likely be sworn in as a council member Nov. 16, even if only he and his closest friends vote for him. Joining him will be newcomer Patrick Fitzsimmons, the executive director of Mountain BizWorks, and incumbent Vice Mayor John Penley.

Over in Woodfin, Mayor Jerry VeHaun, who’s running unchallenged, will continue to lead a Board of Aldermen that, in order to keep taxes low, spends so little on improvements and amenities that the Police Department accounts for 48 percent of the town’s budget.

In Transylvania County, there’s at least some concern about the lack of competition for the available seats in Brevard and Rosman. After acknowledging the many legitimate reasons not to run, including the large time commitment, “constituents [who] can be rude and abrasive” and the fact that “people may not feel compelled to run for office if they believe the current office holders are doing a good job,” a recent editorial in The Transylvania Times titled “You File, You Win” pointed out that “with the General Assembly proposing and making some drastic changes regarding financing and regulations, local officials may well have to make some difficult decisions in the next four years. It would be beneficial if voters had at least one more [candidate] from which to choose in each race.”

Ripe for a write-in win?

Western North Carolina has seen at least two write-in victories in recent years.

In 2003, Robin Cape collected 414 write-in votes to secure a seat on the Woodfin Sanitary Water and Sewer District board of trustees, finishing third among five candidates. Two years later, she was elected to the Asheville City Council.

Meanwhile, in the tiny Transylvania County town of Rosman, population 582, the stage was set for a typical small-town election in November 2013. Five candidates were vying for three Board of Aldermen seats when Jared Crowe swooped in with 69 write-in votes and grabbed the third seat on the board.

Unlike the Chevy Chase coup, Crowe had missed the filing deadline but proceeded to run anyway. As the manager of the local IGA grocery store, Crowe simply reminded shoppers that he was running for alderman and that they could write in his name.

Granted, the chances of another write-in winner so soon are slim in Buncombe County, but at least one WNC town will have a write-in winner this year. Forest Hills in Jackson County, population 365, has two seats on its Village Council up for grabs and only one candidate. According to one county Board of Elections worker, “The second winner will definitely be a write-in candidate.” In the past two elections, the turnout in Forest Hills has been low. And with a grand total of eight write-in votes cast in 2013, up from 0 in 2011, it will be interesting to see how many votes the mysterious new council member will receive.

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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3 thoughts on “Small-scale democracy: Small town elections offer intriguing possibilities, but few options

  1. OneWhoKnows

    Dont waste your time voting for the AVL city council race…NONE are qualified.

    • Able Allen

      This article is about the other municipal elections in the area. Perhaps you would like to chime in on that topic.

  2. OneWhoKnows

    probably a gang of leftwingnut progressives running in them too…good leadership almost nonexistent everwhur …

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