Choosing Change

Here's a practical lesson thatthe current incarnation of our Charter Review Committee can take from lastweek's election:

The first time I ran for officeI realized that in Chatham, Precinct 1 always carried the election.  No matter what the issue or office, ofthe two co-equal parts of town, the higher number of votes always came from thearea north of Old Queen Anne and Main Street.  Turnout was higher, too.

At the time, I was a freshly-mintedpolitical science grad and could see what was going on.  There are three factors that reliablypredict a person's casting a ballot. In order of importance, they are 3) age, 2) income, and 1) education.

Well, Precinct 1 is Shore Road,North Chatham, Chathamport and Riverbay. For the most part, old people with money and advanced degrees.  So their higher turnout madesense.  Those also tend to beindicators for being a Republican. So during an election, even non-partisan local elections, it was clearhow things were going to swing.

Hence, there may have developeda tilt in town politics (perhaps unconscious) towards the residents of thenorthern precinct. 

The less important the electionhas been perceived - meaning, the more local - the lower the turnout and, andso the greater the influence of those who actually did show up.  It would be interesting to look at townmeeting attendance and makeup of town boards to see if this rule follows.

However, in last week'selection, more people from Precinct 2 showed up in force.  The voters from South Chatham and WestChatham carried the day, then (I would have mentioned the Neck, Lower MainStreet and Morris Island, but most of the houses there are typically empty thistime of year).

That's not to suggest that thisis more Democratic.  Rather,Precinct 2 residents, compared to Precinct 1, are younger, less affluent and(perhaps therefore) less educated. But everything is relative. Residents in Precinct 1 are, for example, typically younger thanresidents of Union Cemetery on Main Street.

As a curious aside, the threelargest cemeteries in town are in Precinct 1.  Union, Seaside and People's.  But not four -- due to a few friends with young children nowliving there, I cannot in good conscience repeat the suggestion of anotherhomeowner in the neighborhood that "Riverbay is a cemetery with the lights on."

On the other hand, Precinct 2has the dump, the sewer plant, the most-polluted estuaries in town, and by farmost of the commercial areas.

Chatham is still referred to asthe most conservative town on the Cape. I've always had a problem with that description.  Our tax rate is low, which is mostly alegacy of Prop. 2½, but the support for affordable housing and environmentalprotection is much more solid than towns considered more politically orculturally diverse than ours.  Consider that Chatham gave roughly the same percentages toMcCain and Obama as did Sandwich, Mashpee, Bourne and Barnstable.

Unless you are using the verypurest sense of "conservative", as in wishing to "conserve" certain positive aspects.  Or simply don't like things tochange.  Then that term would befairly accurate.

Whichever the case, myinterpretation of the election in Chatham shows there are about 1,400 hard-coreRepublicans and a similar number of Democrats.  So there's parity between 2,800 voters.  With 4,800 voters motivated to show upfor this presidential election, that means there might be 2,000 up for grabs.  In theory, in a similar turnout.

Any of these figures dwarfturnout at a town election (never mind a Town Meeting).  All of the most conservative peoplehere could show up and elect and pass whatever they wanted.  Likewise, with their counterparts atthe other end of the spectrum. Perhaps, to a certain degree, that has beenhappening.

Looking at the people who wentto the polls on November 4, and knowing that only one out of every four willshow up, it is unlikely they would be a representative sample.  It makes me cringe when any elected publicfigure in town presumes to know what the whole town believes.  As a Selectman, I might have had a goodhandle on those who elected me, and understood that other members of the boardwere elected by constituencies differing from my own.

That's all well and good, butthere's a threat that the people we are electing are not representing the residentsas a whole.  Instead, we shouldtake advantage of the opportunity of a higher turnout at federal and stateelection time and to have municipal officers elected simultaneously.

This could prove to be a realadvantage to the electorate and those they elect.  For example, the town's budget cycle begins in January andends with the annual town meeting in May. This can result in a new Selectman coming on board just a few days aftera budget has been passed that they have had no input on.  Instead, they'll have to wait over sixmonths to begin to be heard on the next one.  Being elected in November would mean the public's will wouldbe expressed within weeks, rather than dissipated over half a year.

But really, there's no goodreason not to employ better methods to encourage more people to vote in everyelection held in Chatham.  Othermunicipalities in Massachusetts hold their elections in the November.  Often, we have a special town meetingaround this time anyway, so having an election somewhat coincident could bejust advantageous as not.

Right now we have a CharterReview Committee, and it is their job make suggestions to improve the structureof our town government.  By law,they emerge every seven years to do their work, with their recommended changesto the charter going to the voters. Then they expire, and we forget about them until the next time, like agang of government cicadas.  So ifsomething like the change of an election date is to made, it has to bediscussed now - right now.

There are some reasons not tochange.  Because it isdifferent.  Because we never did itthat way before.  Because we are comfortablewith who shows up at town elections. Because we are afraid of what more voters might do.  Because it is too hard.  Because, regardless of our partyaffiliation or the outcome of our recent election, we really are just tooconservative.

Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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