“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.