The year of our Lord 2017 follows on one of the most contentious elections in American history (yes, we always say this, even when it isn’t, but this one actually was). We should be exhausted.
Here, in the great Interstate 4 corridor, we endured hundreds of visits by candidates — national, state and otherwise — for two long years; I personally went to three rallies for Donald Trump, two Hillary Clinton gatherings, and one right here in Lakeland for then-Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine.
I attended, mostly with my students, seemingly dozens of “meet and greet” events, “hob nobs,” “drive-bys,” and other “happenings,” flacking people who are primping themselves for public service. We should be done. It was over in November, and never have I breathed a greater sigh of relief.
The interest in politics did not fade, roll back, or even waver. As a political scientist, I’m used to having some sort of grace period between a presidential election and the next round of (even slight) interest. Unless a war or other major crisis intervenes, most folks throw the signs in their yards into the trash, start watching “Family Guy” instead of “Fox and Friends” or Rachel Maddow and hunker down in what passes for normalcy — at least for a month or so.
I ask you to put this on hold — for just a little while.
Off-year elections have much, much lower turnout than general elections during a presidential year, of course. The drop-off can be as much as 20 percent. Part of the reason is voter exhaustion. In the eyes of many we simply have too may elections, and the time and energy they require — for both candidates and voters — are so high that repeating it every two years is just not on, most of the time.
If off-year elections spur voter apathy, you can imagine the effect of an “off” off-year election: one that takes place when not only is there no presidential run, but no congressional, statewide nor legislative races, which often have local fascination.
In the off off-year elections, like the one we face this year in Lakeland, turnout is at its lowest ebb: they are elections for City Commission seats, for charter amendments, and that’s about it. Usually, a lackluster few even bother to run.
I’ve often bemoaned this fact in the past, and I shall again: local elections like this are races in which our neighbors are running for elective positions most likely to affect us on a daily basis, far more than presidential elections.
Mr. Trump may annoy me daily, but he’s not in charge of my garbage pickup or the lighting and sidewalks around the schools. Presidential elections have most often boiled down to party affiliation — even to the point of voting the party line, knowing full well you may be electing a complete idiot. The “brand” is what matters, not the person.
Not so, in city elections. If we elect idiots, we do so fully aware. We’ve got choices. The candidates are known to us — they live down the street.
In the last election like the one coming up, fewer than 14,000 voters bothered to cast a ballot, out of the more than 60,000 eligible voters in Lakeland. High excitement for the few, a coma of indifference and apathy for the many.
This year, the constellation is radically different.
Four positions are up for grabs, and the sheer number of candidates may be a prelude to one of the most high-energy elections Lakeland has seen in decades.
There are four candidates for mayor, four for the City Commission’s Southwest seat, two for the southeast slot, and five for the at-large seat. Fifteen candidates will contend on the ballot, with only one incumbent.
I heard rumors this week that at least two more candidates are considering the ballot for mayor. The complaint that “no one runs” for city positions is false, and it’s time for the voters to put up, too.
The last day to register to vote in this election is Oct. 9, and if you are not yet registered, now’s the time.
These folks have put their careers on hold, their families into chaos and their agendas on the line for this city. Let’s respect this massive effort by giving them the turnout they deserve. Pay attention. Your community is on the line.
R. Bruce Anderson ([email protected]) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.