Monday, October 31, 2011

Mayoral Malaise

On November 8, voters in Portland will elect the mayor for the first time in almost 90 years. Last year Portlanders voted on a charter referendum to create a popularly-elected mayor selected by ranked-choice voting. (Previously, Portland’s mayor has been selected by the City Council.) There are fifteen candidates vying for the position.

I will get my number one endorsement out of the way right now: I support Portland City Councilor and artist, Dave Marshall for mayor. In fact, I have been campaigning for Marshall over the past two months.

Door-to-door canvassing is often a laborious and unrewarding job, and I readily admit I am not always the best pitchman. Every once in a while you will have a positive encounter with an enthusiastic supporter of your candidate. For the most part though, voters tend to be indifferent, uninformed, and sometimes outright hostile. (I have had the door slammed in my face—after saying only a few words—on more than one occasion.)

Of the approximately 300 doors I have knocked on in Portland over the past two months, the majority of residents were completely uninterested in anything I had to say either about Marshall, or the election in general. (The vast majority of residents are not home on the weekends when I do most of my canvassing.)

Many have admitted to knowing nothing about any of the candidates, despite the fact that all 15 have now been profiled in the Portland Press Herald and other local papers. Others tell me they are confused by the ranked-choice voting ballot, but appear completely uninterested when I attempt to explain it to them. A surprising number simply tell me they do not vote. And most simply tell me they “don’t have the time right now.”

Based on my first-hand observations, it seems the city’s first popularly-elected mayor position has been met with a collective yawn.

(Curious side note: It seems the farther away one is from downtown Portland, the less knowledgeable residents are of the mayor’s race in general, thus contributing to the claim those living “off peninsula” are less engaged in city politics.)

There are, of course, a number of factors contributing to this attitude. First and foremost, this is an off-year election, so enthusiasm is not going to be what it was in 2008, or even in last year’s midterm election.

The biggest factor, however, is the sheer number of candidates. This is the one comment I have heard over and over from people: “I just can’t keep them all straight.”

To be certain, fifteen candidates are a lot. Sorting through each and every one of them takes a great deal of time and curiosity—neither of which the average voter seems to possess in large supply. Older voters used to the traditional two-party horse-race and alienated by the “complicated” ranked-choice ballot are easily turned off from the entire process.

Progressive voters, on the other hand, who frequently lament the lack of real choices in an election, should be elated by all the options. Yet, outside of local political groups like the Portland Green/Independent Party and the League of Young Voters, the young people I have spoken with do not seem any more interested in the upcoming election than the baby-boomer crowd.

Personally, I have little sympathy for Portlanders who have been unable sort out the candidate field. There are ample outlets available (including this thing called the Internet) to find information about any of the mayoral candidates.

At the risk of sounding preachy, it never ceases to amaze me how citizens who “lack the time” for civic engagement still seem to have plenty of time for other indulgences—such as the World Series, for instance. According to Entertainment Weekly, Friday night’s airing of “Game Seven” of the World Series garnered 25.4 million viewers—a ratings record. So it is clearly not a lack of time that is plaguing voters in Maine and elsewhere—it is a lack of priorities.

Bill Hicks said it best: “Go back to bed, America… Here’s ‘American Gladiators.’ Watch this. Shut-up… Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom.”

Still, as someone who is a fan of choices, I find it curious that the more electoral options voters are presented with, the more the majority of them throw up their hands and tune out. Perhaps American voters have simply become so accustomed to the limited two-party system, they do not know how to respond to anything different. So, to review: Multiple choices in brand-name products in the shopping aisle—good; too many choices in candidates for elected office—bad.

Valid arguments about the overall impact of voting notwithstanding, the act of showing up to the polls on Election Day remains one’s basic duty as a citizen. Indeed, voting is the absolute minimum amount of civic engagement one can participate in.

Regardless of the reason for the mayoral malaise, I think the alt-weekly The Bollard summed things up succinctly in a recent headline: “Vote or Quit Bitchin’.”

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