Dead letter office

Source: City Clerk's office; 2004 data not available
Source: City Clerk’s office; 2004 data not available

I was speaking with a friend yesterday  about the recent municipal elections in Biddeford.

“I bet you’re glad it’s over,” he said.

“Over?” I responded. “It’s hardly over. Already candidates are lining up for local legislative races that will be decided next November. There’s always another election around the corner.”

He shook his head and smiled. “Who cares about who we send to Augusta,” he said. “It’s not like it matters.”

It’s understandable that most people feel a bit burned out by the political process.

Only a few weeks after arguing and ranting about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, political junkies turned their attention to controversial referendum questions pending in South Portland and Portland. While local candidates were seeking city council and mayoral seats, Congressman Mike Michaud, the likely Democratic nominee for the Blaine House, announced that he was gay and thus strategically overshadowed Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s announcement about his own official re-election campaign this week.

I almost expected Independent Eliot Cutler to announce that he was bi-sexual, pledging allegiance to neither heterosexual nor homosexual preferences; a true Independent — just like Maine —  in a desperate attempt for some much needed press during a tough news cycle.

It’s no wonder that voters have become a bit apathetic and cynical about politics.

For the record, I could not care less about a candidate’s sexual orientation. I also don’t care about their favorite color or whether they like their chicken original or extra crispy. I want the candidates and the media to focus on the issues that are affecting every day people who are struggling under the weight of a difficult economy. I want to hear new ideas. I want to hear each candidate describe their vision.

Although I am pleased that an overwhelming majority of voters in my hometown chose vision over fear, positive over negative; I also expect those who won their seats to get real busy, real quick and to focus with laser-precision on economic development, creating streamlined efficiencies and encouraging private investment.

Voter turnout in Biddeford this year hit a 10-year low. Fewer than one-third of the city’s voters bothered to cast a ballot. Sure, there were no sexy referendum issues like a casino or marriage equality driving people to the polls; but the decisions we made yesterday impact every part of our lives: our roads, our schools, public safety, our sewers and yes . . . our tax bills. The people chosen on Tuesday will be responsible for making decisions that could have long-lasting impacts.

So why was voter turnout so pathetic? The weather was beautiful. There were no long lines at the polling places. What gives?

It’s always difficult to gauge voter sentiment, but there are a few likely reasons:

a.) Voters are content with the way Biddeford is being managed. They sensed Alan Casavant had a commanding lead and, therefore, their vote was unnecessary;

b.) Voters are upset with the way Biddeford is being managed and feel disenfranchised. You can’t fight City Hall;

Or c.) the most likely reason: voters just didn’t care. Period.

If you belong to any of the above three groups, you are an idiot.

Members of Group A risked a potential loss and a step backward for the city. Members of Group B missed a real opportunity to send a powerful message about their discontent; and members of Group C ought to be required to take a remedial civics lesson.

Voting is important. You are an equal shareholder in this community. Your voice matters. Imagine how different the election would have been if only 20 percent more of the city’s register voters had bothered to participate?

Of course, it’s too late to speculate. And those who did vote sent a pretty clear message. They want a fiscally responsible council. They want a positive and professional mayor leading the city. They are not afraid of making long-term investments in their community (all five state bond questions passed easily).

Sure, it’s more fun to get wound up about a particular, controversial issue, but if you can’t be bothered to exercise your civic duty, then be prepared to accept whatever comes down your path.

Voters tend to turn out for things they want; things they support.

Throughout this last election cycle, many of Casavant’s loudest critics failed to articulate who they supported. They were against someone, but for no one. A sure-fire prescription for voter apathy and a stunning loss at the polls.

Sure, Casavant’s opponents split their opposition, but looking at the results tells an even stronger story. Even if you add the total votes of each opponent, Casavant’s numbers were still higher. Fifty-seven percent is a clear victory. Winning each of the city’s seven wards reaffirms the voters’ decision.

If the opponents are struggling to accept the results, maybe they ought to spend a little less time bitching and a bit more time convincing their friends and neighbors to get to the polls two years from now.

I said it before, and I will say it again: Campaign signs do NOT win elections; Facebook or other social media tools do NOT win elections; debates or endorsements do NOT win elections. What wins elections? It’s about how many people you get to the polls. Game over.


2 thoughts on “Dead letter office

  1. If you can figure out voter apathy you can write your own ticket. 30% is a pretty pathetic turnout and this is not a local problem. 88% of 16,000 eligible voters stayed home in Keene, NH on Tuesday.

    So how do Biddeford and other communities increase voter participation in these off years with incumbents and no polarizing social and economic issues on the ballot like gambling, new schools and parking garages? That’s a damn good question.

    My scientific wild ass guess is that a large part of the 30 percent in Biddeford who took the time to vote was property owners, like me, concerned about taxes and the perception that the City’s budget process is and has been broken. As Randy recently scribed when letting us all know who he was voting for, taxes may have increased modestly over the long term related to inflation per your recent post, but they have increased significantly in the last couple of years due to the High School and the Lincoln Street real estate purchase and the revenue offset until this property is redeveloped. I am ready to catch heat for this, but I am willing to argue that a large number of renters, particularly in a couple of the downtown wards with anemic turn out in the 20’s don’t bother. How have Biddeford’s fiscal decisions impacted them? Really? So the rent goes up. Everything else has. What’s the big deal? Why give a crap? We need a conversation about this. Or, as Elvis said, maybe not. Might need a little less conversation and a little more action.

    May be we need to change the election business in Biddeford. A year ago, the Charter Review Commission proposed changing the date of municipal elections to Saturdays. The change would have only affected municipal elections when there were no state referendums (are rare event) and it was a largely symbolic but it would have changed the way we conduct the business of elections. The question lost but 35% of the voters in that election thought it was a good idea. The concept behind the question is that if polls are open on a weekend you remove the obstacles and excuses. The rest of the FREE and not so free world is doing this. Two centuries ago, the gentrified land owners had to travel to county seats to vote with some journeys taking a couple days. Because they could not travel on the Sabbath, people voted on Tuesday. Wouldn’t it be nice to change a little after a couple hundred years?

    You are right; signs don’t vote and never have. Engaging in conversation apparently does. My guess is that the successful candidates this week did just that but the conversations should be just beginning. The Mayor and the members of the Council need to consider public meetings and other Q&A forums. They naysayers can probably argue that this has been down before without success and that people don’t show up for public meetings on the budget and other major issues. All probably true but that is not a reason to stop the conversation between elections. If we, as a community, are serious about increasing the level of participation and perhaps leveling a playing field and removing barriers then we need to be talking.

    Lastly, this and other blogs are great forums to keep the conversation going. This ain’t the place for blind and anonymous name calling or kook references. I love it when people disagree with me because that gives us all an opportunity to think. If you think I am full of crap let me know who you are and give me the chance to buy you a cup of coffee while I work to change your opinion or accept your point of view. Until more of us do that, communicate and learn to disagree, the longer this town will remain the same. I know we can do better.


  2. My column Tuesday One Man’s Island covered some of these same points. Those who would weaken democracy count on weakening democracy by discouraging voter turn out.


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