The Joy Of A Tie Vote

“I don’t vote. It don’t count.”

Wayne, an older fellow in cement-dusted overalls laying cinder blocks into a wall next to an old cottage on Hemlock Drive, wet trowel in hand, looked at me like I’d landed from Mars when I asked him if he was voting in Pine Lake. He lives here, he said. Had for a while. And, yes, he was registered, and proudly voted for Barack Obama last year. But a city council election? There’s a city here? They elect people?

“I got this house to get ready,” he said, while his son sprayed a bit of water into the wheelbarrow to keep the mix wet. 

I had taken Gabriel Sterling’s advice to heart: if you’re not running unopposed, run like you’re scared, even if you think you’ve got it in the bag. So I was knocking on doors Monday. But we know it’s electioneering 101 on the day before the polls open that it does next to no good to try to get people who don’t vote to magically show up, and that goes double for off-year municipal elections like this one when more people probably watched Agents of Shield last night than cast a ballot.

Kasim Reed’s landslide victory last night in Atlanta, for example, came on about 40,000 votes in a city with 288,574 registered voters — about 14 percent of the electorate. Professionals pick their spots.

I had a folder containing the name of every registered voter in Pine Lake — all 543 of them — of which about 460 were active and about 150 might have been expected to vote based on their voting history. I knew better. And yet, here I was, debating the merits of casting a ballot with a recalcitrant neighbor … because I’m hard-headed like that, I suppose.

Pine Lake is small and quirky in the Brigadoon-meets-Smurf Village kind of way. We’re a middle-class hamlet full of artists and writers in the middle of DeKalb County, an incorporated artifact of 1940’s county politics. We pay the highest property taxes in the state because we’re essentially a park with a couple hundred funky cottages stapled to it. We’ve been digging out from under a reputation as a ticket trap for a generation, at some cost to the city’s finances. And the housing crash kicked our property values into the cellar. Plainly, city government matters here.

Part-time volunteers govern the city. A city council person earns $599 a year. The mayor makes three grand. This year, we had four people running for three open seats. The top three vote-getters would be sentenced to serve four years.

I’m a political nerd, so I hung around at the clubhouse Tuesday night after the polls closed, examining the water damage to the roof that we’ll need to find money to fix while waiting for the election results, which usually take all of seven minutes for an election worker to tape to the inside of the glass door.

Tuesday, it took about half an hour. Frankly, I thought he was screwing with me this year because my name was on the ballot. And then I saw the results — a 67-67 tie between Jeri Jaremko and Lynn Alexander-Ehrlicher for the third seat. I yelled things that would get a man arrested, were I in the presence of children or horses.

A runoff election will cost the city about $2000. There goes the roof.

At the party afterward, about 20 of us excitedly debated whether or not the single provisional ballot would count. One voter had also inexplicably written in Lynn’s full name as a write-in candidate, which was disallowed. (Someone probably voted for Lynn and then wrote her in just to make extra-sure.)

In some states, like Arizona and New Mexico, a tie can be broken by a game of chance. Last year, two candidates for a spot on the Lake Geneva village board in Wisconsin settled the race by drawing cards. Georgia is not one of those states. O.C.G.A. § 21-2-501 says that elections must be decided by a majority or plurality of the vote, with no provision for ties.

At a cost to the city of $2000, it would make sense from a game-theory perspective to ask for sealed bids to drop out of the race, with the city paying off the lowest bidder as long as the bid was below $2000. Except, of course, that it would probably be highly illegal.

H. Maxine Daniels, DeKalb’s elections director, told me this morning that the provisional voter wasn’t registered in Pine Lake, so we have an honest-to-goodness tie. It’s the first for an elected office in at least 12 years in DeKalb, she said. Daniels said if there was something in our charter allowing for a tie to be broken by a game of chance, she’d honor it, but I think that may conflict with Georgia law which provides for nothing like that.

If we settle this like Pine Lakers, we’ll stage a public tournament of goose-chasing around the lake, with the winner allowed to withdraw from the race. We’ll sell tickets.

Meanwhile, I found Wayne at work this morning. He laughed like hell. So did I.

You might think the election of 2000 in Florida, hanging chads and butterfly ballots, might still be fresh in people’s minds, but it takes moments like this every once in a while to reminds folks that one vote really does count.

13 comments

  1. saltycracker says:

    “Highest property taxes in the state” as a few hundred cottage owners preserve a community by having to maintain a city government division. Obviously the County represents some threat and while not understanding it, respect your choice.
    If you are a remnant of the 40’s can’t it be unincorporated?

    • George Chidi says:

      We could disincorporate — it’s been discussed — but I don’t think we’d be better off. We’re a pretty tight community here, and we’re able to advocate for our interests with more success as an incorporated area. If we already weren’t incorporated, I’d question the move to incorporate, but we have a strong sense of community identity that pays dividends.

      If we weren’t incorporated, for example, I strongly suspect we wouldn’t have been able to land the state and federal environmental grant money to dredge the lake as we did in 2010. There simply wouldn’t be people paying as close attention, and our voice wouldn’t have been heard. The fact that our police aren’t on the DeKalb payroll is a net asset given the broader corruption issues, although we really are fighting an overhanging reputational problem from about 15 years ago when the cops here had run amok.

      It’s not that we’re paying for a city government so much as we’re paying for the lake and the police. We’re unbelievably bare-bones about everything else. The thing is, even carrying two full time police officers and a couple of part-timers means that we have roughly four times the police coverage per capita as the county at large. And, no, they do not pay for themselves in traffic fines.

      The threat is two-fold. One, if we were unincorporated, we’re worried that our local concerns like the river and the lake would be ignored. There’s no road connecting Memorial Drive and Rockbridge Road through Pine Lake because we’re incorporated and won’t let it happen — the traffic would be a disaster. The second is that the police response time is a crime deterrent that has in the past provided price support to property values. 90 seconds for our cops compared to 30 minutes for the county. I’m acutely aware that the police have also been a deterrent to commercial traffic to our business district — something I plan to address.

      • bgsmallz says:

        The reputation of being a speed trap goes back more than 15 years…I used to have friends that lived near Allgood and Redan back in high school …cough cough…which was probably more than 15 years ago…and I knew the easiest way to get a ticket was to speed through Pine Lake. (or Avondale or Decatur for that matter…although it was seemingly worse in Pine Lake just because of the sheer audacity of seeing an officer every time you drove through).

        Now as far as speeding down Old Rockbridge Road before they built Avondale Middle…it was one lane and full of blind hills…nevermind.

        Congrats on the 4 year sentence. I’m sure Pine Lake will be better for it.

      • saltycracker says:

        Good, interesting. analysis. I’ve lived in cities that insulated us from the county and also in counties that were tighter on zoning than the cities. Hopefully the rewards will out weight the disappointments in your community service.

  2. If somebody voted for one of the candidates and also wrote in their name, you should at least ask a judge. That seems pretty clear what they meant to me. Intent is important when it comes to elections.

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