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A “perfect storm” that wasn’t in the forecast? – Part 1

It’s been a month since the election — high time for me to acknowledge here that I lost.

A person can’t run for office without anticipating the possibility of losing, but I lost by a lot — something I didn’t see coming.

When an incumbent loses a re-election bid by a big margin, the usual interpretation is that the voters were severely dissatisfied with the official’s performance in office. That’s what I first thought when I saw the returns (“Where did I go so horribly wrong?!”). However, looking over the results, talking with fellow citizens, and reflecting on the election season has convinced me that this was not the case — my election loss should not be interpreted as a massive repudiation of my work as a City Council member. Instead, I’ve concluded that for me this election was a bit like a “perfect storm.” That is, as with the recent Superstorm Sandy, a variety of seemingly unrelated conditions and events converged to yield an exceptionally poor result for me. Unlike Sandy, though, no one forecast my perfect storm. As I told two local newspapers the day after the election, the majority of the feedback I got from citizens who follow city affairs has been positive, and most observers of the local political scene thought I would do well this year. Since then, I’ve heard from many citizens — including many that I don’t know personally — who tell me that they thought I was doing an exemplary job, they were shocked at my election loss, and they hope I will run again.

I congratulate the winners — the two incumbents, Charlie Hensley and Chuck Hope, and the newcomer, Trina Baughn — on their election. I wish them — and the whole city — success in their coming years on City Council. I know that all three of them expect to work hard on behalf of their fellow citizens. (No one should underestimate the size of the obligation they have taken on, based on the big reduction in my personal workload that I’ve experienced since the election.)

Because I think some or all of the “perfect storm” circumstances of this year’s election will repeat themselves in the future, I’m documenting my perceptions here for the world to read. Because this has turned into a long essay, I’m dividing it into several installments.

A different electorate. I believe that the vote indicated a very different electorate than we’ve seen in past city elections. That difference is due to holding the city election on a national election day (due to a charter change approved in 2010), instead of the traditional date in June of odd-numbered years.

In those past city elections, a lot of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote. Because the ballots contained only city items, the people who showed up to vote in those June city elections in Oak Ridge were people who took an interest in city government or the schools – or knew some of the candidates personally. That wasn’t nearly everybody. In June 2007, when I was elected, the referendum on the proposed issuance of bonds for the Crestpointe retail development brought unusually high turnout for a city election — 6,414 people voted in that city election. In contrast, the tallies posted on the county election commission websites indicate that 13,292 people in Oak Ridge voted in the recent election – more than twice the heavy turnout of 2007.

Conventional wisdom holds that most of the people who don’t vote on city election day also don’t vote when a city election is held on a national or state election day. This year, a number of the voters I met while campaigning confirmed that — they told me that they didn’t know about city government, would not vote in the city election, and sometimes weren’t willing to talk to me because they didn’t care. Some told me they would only vote in the presidential race. I believed those people, but I don’t think what they told me was true. It appears from the election results that almost everyone who voted this year cast votes for City Council and School Board. Those 13,292 voters each cast an average of 2.25 votes for City Council (out of 3 possible). Since I know that some people deliberately used just one or two of their three votes (either for strategic bullet voting or because they had found only one or two candidates they wanted to support), it’s reasonable to guess that only about 10-15% skipped the City Council election altogether (that’s more than the 7% who skipped the Congressional and Senate races and less than the 20% who didn’t cast complimentary votes for the city judge, who was running unopposed). It’s unusual for so many people to vote in a local election that occurs at the same time as a national or state election. For example, a published analysis of the ballots from a 2006 election in California reports that 46% of the  people who voted in the state election skipped the  local school board election (Meredith and Salant 2012).

By my arithmetic, somewhere around 11,000 to 12,000 people voted in the City Council election this year, including at least 4,000 to 5,000 people who hadn’t voted in a previous city election and may not have given much thought (if any) to the city election before they voted. I believe these new-to-city-election voters were a huge factor in this year’s results. Certainly, they swelled the vote numbers for all candidates. My 4,624 votes put me in last place this year, but would have been a landslide victory in most past city elections. That total was a 46% increase over my tally of 3,177 when I was elected in 2007 and more than double the 2,048 votes that Tom Beehan received in 2009, when he was the highest vote-getter in that year’s City Council election (and when fewer than 4,000 people voted). This year’s two highest-polling Council candidates (Chuck Hope at 6,887 votes and and Trina Baughn at 6.739) not only impressively garnered votes from more than half of the people of voted in the city, but their tallies also exceeded the total turnout in that high-turnout city election of 2007. (Charlie Hensley’s third-place total of 6,301 fell just short of the 2007 turnout.)

OK — so these voters new to city elections had a big influence on the city election, but there are a couple of questions to answer about that influence: Why did people vote in these races when they said they wouldn’t? How did they choose who to vote for?

We don’t have local polls to help provide “scientific” answers to those questions, but I have made some educated guesses based on a combination of personal observations and review of research done elsewhere.

eSlate voting machines. I believe that the voting machines we currently use (the eSlate model from Hart Intercivic, which I don’t think we had back in 2007) explain why a lot of people voted on items they hadn’t planned on voting on.

I knew that the eSlate was selected to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which requires the use of voting equipment that is “fully accessible for individuals with disabilities” and allows people to “vote independently and with privacy”, regardless of their disabilities. Not only is the eSlate is designed for full accessibility, but I learned recently that it also is promoted for its ability to prevent “undervote”.

“Undervote” refers to a voter’s failure to vote in all of the items on an election ballot. Election administrators have a long-standing concern that some voters “undervote” because they didn’t notice everything on the ballot or because their vote didn’t register properly. The eSlate (see online demo of how it works) has two features to prevents this. First, it makes the voter move through the entire election ballot item by item (possibly including items they hadn’t intended to vote on). Then its final screen displays the voter’s selections, highlighting in red any item in which the voter didn’t make a selection or didn’t use one of their available votes. This is done for the laudable purpose of helping the voter avoid mistakes, but because I’ve talked to many people who feared that their votes would be invalid if there were any red entries displayed on that screen, I believe that it induces (even intimidates) some people to cast votes on items they had not planned to vote on (and may not have researched before walking into the voting booth). There are plenty of good reasons why a voter might choose to omit some ballot items (including the aforementioned “bullet voting”, dissatisfaction with all candidates, or lack of interest or information regarding certain items), but it looks to me like the emphasis on preventing “undervote” is probably discouraging some voters from exercising the valid option of not voting.

The eSlate is very different from the way things used to be. With our old voting machines, the entire ballot was laid out in front of the voter on a single screen, so a voter could look around and pick the items they wanted to vote on, then push the button to submit their votes. That made it easier for a voter to decide to omit certain items. In contrast, it appears to me that the eSlate induces unprepared voting — and will increase the rate of unprepared voting everywhere that it is used.

With this expanded electorate, incumbency looks like a disadvantage. Historically, incumbents have usually had an advantage in Oak Ridge city elections, presumably due to name recognition and an electorate that has tended to value stability and experience. There have been exceptions when there was widespread dissatisfaction with a recent city government decision — most notable of which in my memory was the Council decision (about two decades ago) to borrow money to build the Centennial golf course, using a borrowing method (capital outlay notes) that isn’t subject to public referendum.

This year, recent events led many observers of the local situation to think that incumbents would have a clear path to re-election. Things had been going fairly well in the city lately. There were no property tax increases in the last few years. There was positive news on the retail development front, including the recent openings of the new Aubrey’s and Panera Bread restaurants and news of plans for the new Kroger Marketplace. Many residents had positive things to say about increased police patrols and reductions in criminal activity resulting from recent changes in the police department. Completion of Phase 4 of the Melton Lake Greenway and the installation of new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings were creating positive vibes about quality of life in the city, and the enforcement of new parking regulations as part of Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative had eliminated sources of chronic complaints in several neighborhoods.

People who follow city affairs (the people who traditionally vote in Oak Ridge city elections) may generally have shared those positive perceptions of the state of the city, but a combination of overheard conversations (mostly at the polls), the election results, and comments posted online since the election leads me to think that many voters this year (probably including many of those folks who haven’t often voted in city elections) followed the principle of “when in doubt, get rid of the incumbents.” I heard (and heard of) people who talked about voting for Trina Baughn and Kelly Callison (ironically, the most anti-“establishment” and pro-“establishment” candidates on the ballot, respectively — I don’t know of anyone who knows both of these people and voted for both of them) because they weren’t incumbents. Chuck Hope also apparently appealed to anti-incumbent voters because he had been in office only a little more than a year — not nearly as long as Charlie Hensley’s and my full terms.

Any anti-incumbent trend this year was amplified by the small number of non-incumbents on the ballot. I noted a “strong current of anti-incumbent sentiment” in the 2009 city election. There were four Council seats up for election and eleven candidates on the ballot: three incumbents and eight non-incumbents. The non-incumbents outpolled the three incumbents by 7,348 total votes to 5,674 votes, but if there was an anti-incumbent vote then, it was divided among too many different candidates to be effective, as the three incumbents won by solid margins. This year, people wanting to vote against incumbents could focus their votes effectively.

To be continued….

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4 Comments

  1. Angi Agle says:

    I was surprised by the results as well, but the anti-incumbent sentiment in the Council races didn’t translate to the School Board at all.

    It does cause me to wonder how the vote might have been influenced by public support for our school system. Notably, the highest vote getter was the incumbent who was most reserved about Council’s budget actions with respect to school funding. I seem to recall his publicly musing whether you all really wanted to jump off that cliff — right before voting to do so.

    Obviously, I don’t know for certain that this is the case, but it is one possibility.

  2. Charlie Hensley says:

    Ellen
    Thank you for this very thoughtful description of your observations. I agree with you on most points of opinion. Also, I think candidates listed in alphebetical order combined with incentives to vote in all cases were complimentary factors, especially considering Kelly’s relative unknown status prior to the election. I look forward to the rest of your writeup.

  3. Sam Hopwood says:

    It was time for a change, simple as that. Chuck Hope comes across to voters as a successful businessman with good comon sense and although he is a staunch supporter of the schools he recognized the grevious error they made in refusing to honor their commitment to the voters on the high school mortgage and voted to reduce their funding by that amount as did ALL council members. The school board still does not get that.

    Trina struck a solid chord with the voters in their desire for changes in the way council does business. She “connects” with a wide range of Oak Ridgers.

    The times, they are achanging……. Just my view.

  4. James Perkins says:

    “The matter of guns in parks is on the agenda for the next City Council
    meeting next Monday, July 20.

    Guns are currently not permitted in our city parks. A new state law that
    allows people with handgun carry permit holders to carry their guns in
    public parks will take effect September 1, 2009, and will apply in Oak Ridge
    city parks unless the City Council decides by resolution to “opt out.”

    The “opt-out” resolution that City Council will consider next Monday
    would maintain the existing ban on guns in our parks, with exceptions
    for law enforcement officers, hunters in an authorized hunt (we do have
    them in some city areas), World War II re-enactors at Secret City, and
    similar exceptions. It would apply to all parks, natural areas,
    greenways, and similar properties owned or operated by the city. (Guns
    will continue to be banned on school property regardless of what we do.)

    I intend to support the opt-out resolution to continue the ban on guns
    in our city parks. As I see it, this restriction is not related to a
    citizen’s right to bear arms, but rather is a reasonable restriction to
    ensure public safety and allow citizens to feel secure when they use the
    city’s public playgrounds, parks, greenways, and other areas.”

    That’s why I didn’t vote for you.

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