Thursday, May 13, 2010

Electioned to Death

When it comes to democracy, more is less.

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2010 at 4:00 AM

We have too many elections in Memphis and Shelby County.

It's worse than sports. Baseball ends in November. Hockey and basketball end in summer. Football starts in spring and ends in February. Elections, like reruns of Law & Order or I Love Lucy, never end.

In last week's county primary election, 90 percent of the eligible voters, me included, didn't vote. Like those votes to unionize workers at FedEx, my "did not vote" should be taken as a "no." It was premeditated and deliberate. There were candidates that I liked and didn't like in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and I didn't feel like making a party declaration, so I rolled right past my polling place where it would have taken only a minute or so to vote on Election Day or during early voting.

It's not like there won't be more chances to vote. One of the things about having two governments, early voting, and job-jumping mayors is that there is almost always a vote or campaign of some kind going on.

There will be a county general and congressional primary election in August, highlighted by the Willie Herenton-Steve Cohen matchup, and a Memphis municipal election in November, highlighted by the metro government referendum, and possibly a runoff election in December.

There was a special Memphis mayoral election last October, and there will be a regular one in 2011, as there was in 2007. If you're marking your calendar, you might as well mark the months when there isn't an election.

To what end? Fresh faces? Give me a break. Maybe at the council and commission levels, but the headliners — A C Wharton, Steve Cohen, Willie Herenton, Joe Ford, Mark Luttrell — are political Methuselahs. Voter participation? The trend is downward, with a 10 percent turnout in primaries and 25 percent turnout in general elections standard practice, and single digits in anything else. And I would love to know how many of those are government employees.

Greater diversity? Perhaps, if you mean more women on the council and commission. But the Democratic and Republican parties are more racially polarized than ever. With a couple of exceptions, notably Cohen and Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, Democratic candidates in Shelby County are black and Republicans are white. Go against the grain if you like, but you probably won't win. Partisan primaries only highlight this fact.

Bill Giannini, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission and Shelby County Republican Party chairman from 2005 to 2009, said it's time to consider primary election changes.

"Ninety percent of the taxpayers in Shelby County are paying for something they don't use," he told me. "Is it wise to spend $1 million for the 10 percent of registered voters who vote?"

He would like to see 10 days of voting, period, without regard to early voting or Election Day. Roughly 40 polling sites could be staffed with 400 workers instead of the 2,000 workers required to staff 236 sites on Election Day.

Donning his Republican Party hat, Giannini conceded that diversity is a problem:

"There are more white Democrats than black Republicans, but it's something both parties need to work on. You want a ballot of candidates who represent the community, not a bunch of 50-year-old white guys. That's harder than it looks."

Van Turner Jr., an attorney with Butler Snow and chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, said low turnouts are a fact of life. He would enlarge rather than shrink the number of early-voting sites. Early voting accounts for about half the turnout. He withheld judgment on Giannini's idea until he sees if it works elsewhere.

"You probably won't have a large turnout in Shelby County until the 2012 presidential election," Turner said. "A lot of people are running who are not as well known as candidates in the past. You want new people, but the downside is voters don't know the names."

Diversity of gender, he agrees, is easier than diversity of race.

"We have had successful white Democratic candidates such as [former assessor] Rita Clark at the county level. It's more of a demographic and geographic issue. Look at our city schools. We need to address why our communities are not diverse before we address why our politics are not diverse."

We should reduce the number of elections. But we'd have to have an election to do that.

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