August 14, 2013 in City

Vestal: Voting clout depends on neighborhood

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

Did you vote in the primary?

If you did, welcome to the ruling council. We are a small group, relative to the size of the city, and our authority is outsized. About a fifth of us – 22 percent – cast votes. Our wishes, like the wishes of any elite, will now take precedence over the rest of you suckers.

Our abysmal 22 percent is a low-water mark in Spokane County. The only turnout lower in the past two decades came in September 2001, days after 9/11, when it was 19 percent. Only three other times since 1952 has voter participation been lower, according to county elections records.

There are a few caveats about this abysmal 22 percent. It’s not that much worse than other municipal primaries without a mayoral contest; turnouts in the 20s are not uncommon. Primary elections for City Council races without a mayoral contest always draw the fewest voters. As elections move up the hierarchy, so does voter participation; more than 80 percent of Spokane residents cast ballots in the presidential general election last year, around double the number who voted in the 2012 primary. That’s pretty good, by any standard.

So it would be silly to expect a city primary to rival a presidential election, or a congressional one or even a mayoral primary. Still, last Tuesday’s ballot had two important City Council races with plenty of variety and quality in terms of candidates.

Were four-fifths of us really content to sit it out? What kind of outliers are we – we oddballs and misfits who bother with these municipal primaries, with their low stakes and fields of unknowns?

Like most averages, that 22 percent masks a fairly dramatic range of voter engagement in Spokane neighborhoods – one that follows, more or less, the wealth of Spokane neighborhoods.

Call it the Comstock-Cannon divide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, voter turnout in the neighborhood surrounding the South Hill’s Comstock Park was much higher than that in the precincts around West Central’s A.M. Cannon Park. This is nothing new – voting patterns tend to follow socioeconomic patterns – but last week’s results provide the latest example of how dramatic this divide can be.

Consider two precincts: No. 3322 in West Central, a district bounded by Nora and Fairview avenues and Cedar and Cannon streets. And No. 6207 on the South Hill, bounded by Bernard and 29th and High Drive.

In Precinct 3322, which is in City Council District 3, voter turnout was 13.71 percent. Out of 985 registered voters, 193 cast ballots.

In Precinct 6207, which is in City Council District 2, voter turnout was 48.09 percent. Out of 917 voters, 441 cast ballots.

These two precincts marked the extreme ends of a larger pattern. In the cluster of precincts immediately around 3322, voter turnout was 16.6 percent.

In the cluster of precincts immediately around 6207, voter turnout was 38.9 percent.

Do these gaps matter? In measure after measure, statistics show that voting follows money and education. As the country’s various other gaps increase – from income to education to health outcomes – the number of people who vote is just another indicator of how engaged citizens feel. Or don’t. It simply cannot be good to keep slipping in this direction, with a large and growing class of people who feel no connection to the opportunities of the economic and political systems. And it can’t be good that politicians, already beholden to the wealthy in so many ways, find it less and less necessary to seek the votes of the poor.

And what if you expand the range of consideration beyond registered voters? Vicky Dalton, the county auditor, notes that only three-quarters or so of eligible voters register to vote to begin with.

“So when you take that turnout percentage and relate it back to the overall population – ouch,” she said. “That’s a very small group of citizens making the decisions for everybody.”

But here in Spokane, there is a flip side to our abysmal 22 percent. It could easily be worse. In 2006, a Senate primary in New Jersey drew 8.4 percent of voters. Texas municipal elections often drop into the single digits – 5 percent of voters in Dallas cast ballots in the 1999 mayoral race. In 2009, 11 percent of Austin voters turned out in a mayoral election. The same year, 18 percent of Los Angelenos voted for a mayor. In St. Louis, the last three municipal elections drew an average of 12 percent of voters.

Maybe abysmal is the new normal.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv @spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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