By Paul Rozycki
It must be a Flint thing.
If you want people to do something, tell them you can’t do it. Make it difficult. Make it too easy and they will ignore you.
Consider some recent elections in Flint.
On one hand, in the last few years, an election to choose the members of the city council and the mayor, was held on the usual Tuesday, when we expect elections to be held. Polls were open from 7 a.m. ‘till 8 p.m. and there were places to vote in each of 62 precincts in the city, all fully staffed and ready to go. Absentee ballots were easily available in the usual places with little problem. The media gave significant coverage to the candidates and their campaigns.
The result? We were lucky to have a 10 percent turnout.
On the other hand, the Genesee Conservation District (GCD) recently held an election for three of its five board members, who govern the rather obscure (until now) organization. The election was held, not on a traditional Tuesday, but on a Thursday. Polls were not open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. They opened at 11 a.m. and closed at 2 p.m. And there weren’t 62 Flint, or 239 county precincts, as voting locations. There was only one place to vote—Asbury United Methodist Church on Davison Road. Absentee ballots were available, but there were many complaints about how to obtain them and how quickly they were mailed out. Voters could also cast their ballots if they choose to drive out to the Conservation District headquarters on Elms Road. The media coverage of the election was all but zero.
The result? In the end, over 500 people voted. True, it’s a small fraction of the 332,000 voters in all of Genesee County, but this was an election that might have drawn fewer than 50 people the last time it was held.
So what happened?
While the numbers hardly equaled a presidential year, the turnout was remarkable for such a little known board under such limited voting conditions. Voting just before noon on Thursday, March 22, I found the parking lot to be nearly full, candidates passing out voting cards at the door, and a fair sized line to vote once I got inside. I expected to find a half dozen people and an empty parking lot.
Why did voters show up?
So why did it happen this way?
I’m guessing it was two things. Trees and the sense that someone was trying to rig the system.
As reported in past issues of the East Village Magazine, trees, or the trimming and cutting of trees, has been a hot button issue for the neighborhood for the past several years. Several neighborhood meetings documented the many trees that had been cut down and removed, sometimes over the objections of homeowners. And many of the complaints about cutting down healthy trees were directed at the Conservation District. Serious questions were also raised about the contracts for trimming the trees. As a result, several members of the College and Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA) put together a slate of candidates to run for the board and challenge some of their policies and practices. Two individuals, Mike Keeler, CCNA president, and Andy Everman went door-to-door in the neighborhood, handing out voting cards, and campaigning as if a congressional seat was at stake.
A second reason may have been the feeling that, justified or not, the election was planned to keep voters at home. Scheduling an election on a Thursday afternoon, for three hours, at only one location, seemed designed to discourage voters. While absentee voting was an option, the process was, at best, clumsy, with many prospective voters not receiving their ballots on time, and others complaining that last minute changes to emails and phone numbers made it difficult to obtain an absentee ballot at all. CCNA Vice President Sherry Hayden and Mike Keeler sent out an email to CCNA residents with the subject “The GCD doesn’t want us to vote,” documenting some of the problems and frustrations in emailing or calling for an absentee ballot. They gave detailed directions on working around the barriers.
The turnout may be a reflection of the commitment of the CCNA to our neighborhood and our trees and a way of showing our commitment to the beauty of the trees. It may also have been a reflection of the frustration with so much of the political process today, where one’s vote seems to matter so little, and trust in the system has faded, on all levels of government. It may have been a way of making a difference, if only in a small way, on a modest issue. And it may reflect the real possibility that people can mobilize in a positive way when they are given the opportunity, even on the most local of issues, and even when there are significant obstacles.
The winning candidates
Winners were Kristen Miner for a single-year term and Caroline Kellogg and Erin Caudell, both serving four year terms. Most surprising was incumbent Everman’s loss by three votes. Everman ran what was probably the most active campaign of all the candidates. He offered his thanks to those in the CCNA for turning out to vote. The victory of Kellogg and Miner gave the challengers, backed by Keeler and Hayden, two of the five votes on the Conservation District Board. They had hoped to win three of the five seats.
Reaction to the election results
In a follow-up email Keeler and Hayden said, “Although our neighbors took two out of three seats, their board majority will still set the agenda. We hope that with two people from the neighborhood on the board, our concerns will be taken seriously.”
Angela Warren, Genesee Conservation District administrator, responded to the election of the new board members saying, “I have every confidence that the newly elected Board members’ interests, backgrounds, and skills will positively impact the mission of the Conservation District. In the coming months, Board and Staff will review responses to the Natural Resource Assessment Survey available now on our website at geneseecd.org. Responses from the survey helps the Conservation District prioritize efforts and direct resources toward the most important natural resource needs of the County.”
This election may be a good example of the old maxim that “all politics is local” and how local issues can motivate voters in unexpected ways.
It may be a sign of things to come.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.