By David Rogers. November 7, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Pundits, politicians, naysayers and enthusiastic advocates alike — they all often describe today’s governmental environment as “the Trump era” of American politics. Many waited with proverbial “bated breath” to see the results of yesterday’s election and what the Trump influence meant for national, state, and even local politics.
Amid nationwide reports of what in this day and age should be unforgivable flaws in the mechanics of America’s voting systems, history is likely to remember the 2018 mid-term elections as one in which voter turnout soared, driven by the very polarity that divides so many segments of our society. We may remain united in giving lip service to American values and the liberties we all share, but we remain harshly divided over issues like immigration, taxes, healthcare, Supreme Court appointees, racism, women’s rights, and even approval or disapproval of Trump and the calls for his impeachment.
CBS News reports that an estimated 113 million American citizens exercised their right to vote yesterday, marking the first time in history that the number of voters participating in a mid-term election exceeded 100 million.
“In the last three decades,” CBS quoted University of Florida associate professor Michael McDonald as saying, “we’ve had (only) about 40% of those eligible to vote participating in mid-term elections. If we get in the upper end of that range, if we can beat the 1966 (turnout rate of) 49-percent, you’d have to go all the way back to 1914 to get a turnout rate above 50 percent.”
Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.
Many talking heads have speculated in the weeks leading up to the election that it was a Judgement Day of sorts for Donald Trump. Would Republicans following his agenda gain seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate to ease El Trumpo’s path to getting his way on things, or would the Democrats re-take control of the legislature and throttle down The Donald’s agenda?
Interestingly, the answer proved “yes,” and “no.” The Democrats regained control of the House by winning a net 27 seats, while the Republicans extended their dominance in the Senate by gaining a net of two seats. Trump declared it a “Big Victory,” but the mainstream media has been less generous.
Realistically, a split legislature means that we will have legislative gridlock for at least the next two years. Unless the Trump Administration AND the Congress work more earnestly to understand the other side’s views and try to find middle ground upon which they can both agree, few legislative actions are likely to pass both houses and the few that do pass may be destined for a Trump veto if they don’t fit his agenda. Such is the system of checks and balances envisioned by our founding fathers whether any individuals among us like it or not.
Local Impact of Trump Factor
Just like the national trends, Watauga County’s voter turnout was more robust than usual at 51.1% of eligible voters casting ballots, according to data compiled by the North Carolina Board of Elections. That is very high for any election. By comparison, Watauga County’s voter turnout in November 2017 for mostly municipal offices was only 11.68%. In 2015, the November mid-terms saw less than 10% of registered voters actually participate. This year’s mid-term turnout of 51+% was pretty respectable when you consider that the hotly contested NATIONAL election in 2016 drew 65%.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We penned a Tomorrow’s Blowing Rock editorial entitled, “Should we complain?” on November 17, 2017, about not only the low voter turnout, but also the lack of participation in the democratic process because of few candidates for local elections. CLICK HERE to revisit that op-ed piece.
On the one hand, we are enthused about the increase in this year’s voter turnout. Voting is a privilege in our system of representative government. If you don’t research the candidates before the election and get a pretty good idea about which ones represent your values and priorities– then go to the polls to cast your votes — you have sacrificed your franchise.
We don’t have government by the majority. We have government by the majority of those who participate.
Thomas Jefferson underlined this thought many years ago when he noted, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”
George Jean Nathan, co-founder and editor of The American Spectator magazine in the early 20th century quipped, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.”
So it is a good thing that so many Americans, including High Country residents, turned out to declare themselves yesterday and exercise their voting franchise, even if only driven by the broader national issues for which we seek common ground.
On the other hand, there is a potential downside, too, and the impact more than likely occurs at the most local level.
Democrats and Republicans have many differences when it comes to national and even international issues. Those differences become fewer and fewer as we move further down the political food chain to local and even hyper-local elections such as town commissioner, county commissioner, mayor, and school board. We share more common interests than differences when it comes to education, taxes, infrastructure, crime, environmental contamination, emergency services, jobs, affordable housing, sustainability, and poverty, among others.
But where local elections still identify candidates with some kind of party affiliation, be it Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, Independent, or whatever, the party affiliation often results in a “party line” vote. And that can be a problem, especially in Watauga County.
Why? Because a significant portion of Watauga County’s registered voters are students at Appalachian State University. In what is still considered to be a largely rural area, having a “chunk” of voters in the mix has the potential to significantly alter the local political landscape.
That’s NOT to say that App State students are less than intelligent. Far from it. But because the vast majority of their hometowns are somewhere other than Watauga County, most are unlikely to be engaged in the High Country’s local government, issues and politics.
Where does that create a problem? Because where they don’t study local issues and the candidates aspiring to solve local problems, they are more likely to vote “party line” rather than leave a part of the ballot blank. So if more App State students are Republican, then even if the best candidate for a job is a Democrat he or she is running with a leg in a proverbial bucket of cement.
And vice-versa. If the majority of App State students tend to vote along Democratic Party lines because they simply aren’t familiar with local issues and candidates, then they may be overlooking the best person to do the various local jobs.
That a greater number of App State students tend to be Democrat-aligned is arguably reflected in Tuesday’s election results for three County Commissioner seats — the majority of the 5-person policy-making body. Three Democratic candidates won: incumbents Billy Kennedy and Larry Turnbow, along with newcomer Charlie Wallin. That voters tended to choose candidates along party lines is reflected in the vote totals being almost identical in all three races vs. Republican challengers:
- District 3: Kennedy received 53.96% of ballots cast
- District 4: Turnbow received 55.18% of ballots cast
- District 5: Wallin received 53.82% of ballots cast
Without question, incumbents Kennedy and Turnbow rode a wave of accomplishment in many voters’ eyes. The county is doing pretty well right now. Current County Commissioners chairman John Welch observed to Blowing Rock News last week that even in taking on the Recreation Center debt obligation, the County has retained a “AA” bond rating with the Moody’s, as well as with the Standard and Poor’s rating agencies. Of course, after the real estate debt rating debacle contributing to the Great Recession in 2008, most of us have learned to at least question their validity because of the inherent conflict of interest: the rating agencies get paid by the companies, agencies or institutions they are evaluating.
Given the influence of App State students, faculty and staff, Wallin may well have been helped in his Food Service department role at Appalachian State.
If the tendency for App State students to vote along party lines remains true when they are mostly uninformed about Watauga County issues and the candidate choices, then we will have a problem and it is unlikely to go away given our current system. If there is a lesson this year for Republican candidates, it is that they must actively court the App State voter bloc. At the very least they must make themselves known in the App State community. If not, then they must actively muster the voting participation of non-App State supporters.
There is a certain level of irony and frustration knowing that 47,614 residents of Watauga County have declared their interest in citizenship by registering to vote, but only 24,381 actually exercised that right and went to the polls on Tuesday. That leaves 23,233 voters out there that could make a difference.
And that is how we see it.