Jason Joyce had it right on our election live-blog last night. Low turnout is always good news for incumbents. The returns sure seem to suggest that.
Whatever members of the Dane County Board have been doing for the past two years, voters sent a message Tuesday that they should keep it up. Incumbent County Board members, both conservatives and liberals, won in almost every district Tuesday despite predictions that the sour economy, a 7.9 percent property tax levy increase and the approval of a Regional Transit Authority would hurt them.
Well, if by "voters" we mean the eight percent of eligible voters who turned up at the polls. When the rate is that low I would just as soon call them an electoral college. Those voting are those who have the special privilege of knowing what the county board does and where and how they can vote. In practice, they have special powers.
So, while I happily accept last night's results as a repudiation of Dave Blaska, it would be wishful thinking for me to assume that it was a vindication of the liberal majority. If anything it was a condemnation of our electorate and the media which failed to alert it. The campus press only talked about the district 5 race, and the Cap Times and State Journal only gave cursory attention.
Local elections matter! Honestly. God knows they can be boring, but in the days preceding the election the papers need to make it clear on the front pages that the election results will have consequences. The County Board controls a budget of $500 million.
Which begs the question: Did the challengers do enough? At least two failed candidates told me very frankly that "they could have worked harder." Sources tell me that Elaine DeSmidt, the failed liberal candidate in the 3rd district, barely knocked on any doors.
Challengers need to understand that their best way to win is not to squabble over the votes of the small group of county politics geeks, who will figure out who to vote for anyway, but to demonstrate to voters why the race matters. Platitudes don't work as well at such a small level, and yet that's what I got when I talked to some candidates a couple weeks ago at Logan's. The conservatives tried to do that with shoreland zoning. They invented an issue and tried to tell people that they would all be adversely affected by it.
What would you do if you were running for board? What issue would you bring to somebody when you knock on their door? After complimenting the heavenly scent of a delicious dinner coming from their kitchen, what is something you could say to motivate a November voter out to the polls in the spring?
Frankly, I can only comment (somewhat) authoritatively on the District 5 race, but luckily that is the most glaring example of voter apathy (two percent turnout). Jason also commented that students only care about local elections if underage drinking is an issue. He's half right. Students also care about pot.
Beer and pot would be the foundation of my campaign if I ran for District 5 (and all I cared about was winning). I would have found the most recent example of a big county drug bust and claimed that I would work to de-prioritize drug enforcement by the Sheriff's Dept. Eicher mentioned that she wanted to work with the Sheriff's Dept to make the Mifflin Block Party more fun for students. Good idea, but I'd have taken it even further. Why not? Write a guest column in the student papers advocating legalization and a lower drinking age. Put flyers on every dorm door telling students to vote for pro-legalization candidate X. And say that landlords are shamelessly exploiting students.
The only thorn in the side of that campaign would be the campus press. The ed boards might call you out as a phony. You have to find ways to co-opt that. Meet with the ed boards and assure them that you know your shit or at least act like it. Tell them that you're pragmatic, and that pot and booze is by no way the central theme to your policy vision, but that you believe you are advocating student interests by advancing those issues.
Also, how about the idea of a happy hour? Get a bar to sponsor a happy hour with great drink specials. That's the way you run a campaign that nobody is paying attention to.