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Plows go where voters live

Spokane neighborhoods that had to wait the longest for their streets to be plowed after the past week’s snowstorms generally were those with the lowest voter turnout in the last election.

City officials insist it’s just a coincidence.

Plowing was based on need, which was a reflection of the snow levels and street conditions, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Friday. The areas plowed first had the most snow and most complaints about inaccessibility.

But other factors were taken into account, too. Shane Thornton, Spokane’s street supervisor, said the northeast section of town was at the bottom of the list because it was the first to be cleared the last time the city ordered a full plowing of all residential streets.

Mayor Mary Verner called any relationship between the voting and plowing “an interesting theory.” She said she made many decisions about the response to the snowfall, but determining which neighborhood got plowed first was left to the city’s street department.

“If I could make the snow fall in a certain pattern, we wouldn’t need city government at all anymore,” Verner said. “There is no way that I as the mayor get involved in the logistics and the deployment of resources to that level of detail.”

There is a striking similarity between the map of neighborhoods that had been plowed, were being plowed and were waiting to be plowed, which the city released Wednesday night, and a map of voter turnout from the most recent election, which was produced from Spokane County election data.

The city’s plowing map showed that the northwest areas of the city, such as Five Mile and Indian Trails, and the west part of the South Hill along High Drive, around Comstock Park and near Moran Prairie, had been cleared. Northeast Spokane, from Hillyard to Interstate 90 and west across Division Street, were on the schedule but still waiting.

Using the final results of the Nov. 6 election, The Spokesman-Review mapped voter turnout in the city’s precincts showing patterns similar to most municipal elections analyzed by the newspaper over the years.

The precincts that had turnout of 51 percent or less – lower than the average city turnout of 56 percent – were the same areas that were still unplowed as of Wednesday night. Those with voter turnout between 51 percent and 61 percent were being plowed at that time. Those that had greater than 61 percent voter turnout were already plowed.

Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University and longtime observer of local politics, said there are probably many factors other than politics at play, particularly income and geography.

Most areas plowed first seem to be on hills, while those that waited longest are flat, which may explain the sequence, Garvin said.

Although income is often closely related to voter participation, he noted, it also can be related to geography. In many U.S. cities, the most affluent tend to live on hills while people in lower income brackets tend to live on the flats.

Garvin doubted that city officials would try to tie plowing, or other city services, to voter participation. That sometimes happens in cities with well-organized political machines or strong parties, where there are regular tradeoffs of services for political support.

“In Spokane, they’re not organized enough to think that way,” he said.

David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University, said studies indicate “politicians of all sorts tend to pay more attention to people that are politically active.”

One storm’s plowing schedule doesn’t prove that, Nice said, but a consistent pattern of favoritism in all types of city services, including road maintenance, libraries and parks, could.