It is perhaps a sign of the strength of our republic that so few people feel the need to participate. That must be the reason.
— Jon Stewart
Since the municipal elections held in the city of Birmingham last Tuesday, much has been made — and rightly so — of the fact that only 21 percent of voters bothered to make it to the polls. Certainly the point is well taken. This was, after all, an election in which we were choosing simultaneously, for the first time in the city’s history, a mayor, a city council and a board of education — though there were mitigating factors, not least that the outcome of the race for mayor had been a foregone conclusion for weeks, if not months.
It hardly helps matters to recall that the turnout in the 2011 mayor-only election, which was even less competitive than this one, was a mere 13 percent. Or that it was just 15 percent in the previous jointly held elections for city council and school board in 2009. By that meager standard, I guess one could choose absolute optimism and surmise that we are headed in a better direction — on which note, I have to admit that I thought the turnout last week would, at best, top out around 18 percent, so perhaps this column is in part an apology for underestimating my fellow citizens.
Before we get too optimistic, however, we might do well to look behind the overall turnout number and consider, as precisely as space permits, just who voted and who did not. In so doing, I have found ample reason for both flickering hope and potential despair.
Looking at the individual voting districts, it’s interesting to take note of those where turnout exceeded the overall number. The highest turnout in the city, 24.9 percent, was in District 9, where an open city council seat — now set for an October runoff between Marcus Lundy, who led the field, and former Councilor Leroy Bandy, who was voted out of office in 2001 and has made two unsuccessful bids to regain the seat since — helped drive an election that also saw newcomer Sandra K. Brown defeat incumbent Emanuel Thomas for a seat on the school board.
Similarly, the “open seat” dynamic seems to have been a driving factor in District 6, where 24.3 percent of voters came out to fill a spot that has been vacant since January, when former Councilor Carole Smitherman resigned to assume a judgeship to which she was elected last November. Not unexpectedly, neighborhood leader Sheila Tyson won the seat outright, despite facing six opponents. District 6 also featured a competitive school board race that yielded a runoff between candidates Cheri A. Gardner and Gwendolyn Thomas Bell.
The other three districts where turnout was higher than average were District 1 (23.0 percent), where incumbent Councilor Lashunda Scales easily defeated two opponents, while a tight four-way race for school board resulted in the ouster of incumbent Tyrone Belcher and a runoff between Sherman Collins and Douglas Lee Ragland; District 7 (24.5 percent), with another easy win for a council incumbent, Jay Roberson, and an impressive win against two opponents by Wardine Alexander to claim a school board seat; and District 8 (22.1 percent), where incumbent Councilor Steven Hoyt likewise cruised to victory, while incumbent April Williams held her position on the school board without much difficulty. In District 4, meanwhile, turnout was just below average, at 20.9 percent, with yet another incumbent councilor, Maxine Parker, waltzing to victory, and yet another tight BOE race producing a runoff, this one between Daagye Hendricks and Gwen Sykes, who is a former member of both the city council and the school board.
What is to be gleaned from these numbers? It’s hard to say, other than that, comparatively speaking, they suggest a level of voter engagement that went beyond purely parochial concerns, especially as it relates to a widespread desire for sweeping change on the Board of Education as that body continues to face numerous daunting challenges. Argue with their choices all you want, but at least something close to one-quarter of voters in these districts saw fit to show up. To the extent that there is promise for a better future, these voters provide at least the semblance of a foundation upon which to build.
More problematic is the turnout in the remaining three districts, numbers 2, 3 and 5. The combined turnout in those districts was 15.6 percent, but in the interest of space and the larger point to be made here, let’s boil it down to the turnout in District 3, where fewer than one in 10 voters roused themselves to cast a ballot to help determine the leader of our city for the next four years. Turnout was 9.9 percent, to be exact, and anyone in that district who offers the excuse that the council and school board races were uncontested should be made to give up their house and their high-valued property to someone who gives a damn about the future of Birmingham.
That’s harsh, of course, but here’s what is troubling: Districts 2, 3 and 5 — and District 3 most particularly — are home to the wealthiest, most educated and, presumably, most civically engaged citizens. Demographically speaking, those districts also contain the vast majority of the city’s white citizens. Taken collectively, what the August 27 turnout suggests is that most white citizens believed that their vote did not matter. Complain about the choices, or lack thereof, all you want, but the fault for not participating is on those who did not participate.
What does this mean for Birmingham? It means that each and every one of us — from the leaders we have chosen right on down — has before us the challenge of building a city where citizens feel engaged enough to understand and exercise the power of the ballot at every opportunity. And it means that, if we intend to be a great city, we have a great deal of very hard work ahead of us.