Friday, October 13, 2017

Voting strategy this election season Part 2: Davidson Commissioner

As mentioned in Part 1 of this topic, Davidson's elections are setting up to be the most interesting in North Mecklenburg.  On the Commissioners race that is definitely a true statement.  Like the mayoral contests, historically, these haven't been very raucous affairs.  However, the large number of candidates is not unprecedented.

Going all the way back to 1995, Davidson had an election with 13 Commissioner candidates, just like this year.  Below are the results from the Board of Elections for that race.

While all 5 of Davidson's Commissioners are up for election at the same time, "open seats" created when incumbents decide not to run again tend to drive large numbers of candidates.  Since incumbents are always hard to beat, open seats ensure at least that many newcomers will get elected.  That has happened this year, and that same dynamic happened in 1995.  In that year two sitting Commissioners on the 1993 Board decided not to run again in 1995, opening up two seats to challengers.  Interestingly, one of those 1995 open seats was created by Commissioner Randall Kincaid deciding to challenge then Mayor Russell Knox, current Mayoral Candidate Rusty Knox's father.  Kincaid lost to the elder Knox that year, but was elected Mayor unopposed the very next cycle in 1997 when Russell Knox retired from office.

The second interesting thing about the 1995 Commissioner results is the small percentage of overall votes cast that it took to get elected, just 11-13%.  How is that possible?  The low percentage of votes required is due to the structure of this type of plurality election.  In a plurality election voters get one voter for each seat up for election, or in Davidson's case - 5 votes.  The top 5 vote getters are elected.  When you have a large number of candidates, those votes get spread across a larger number of people thus causing the winners to receive a lower percentage of overall votes.  Obviously, the town's population has grown since 1995, so the overall number of votes cast this election will be higher.  However, seeing a similar vote share for the winning candidates this year would not be all that surprising.

So what does all that history mean for how voters can strategically cast their ballots this year?

Many readers may remember this 2015 piece about "supercharging" your vote by actually withholding some of your 5 available votes.  Withholding votes in a plurality election mathematically gives more weight to the ones you do cast as a percentage of the overall votes cast in the election by all voters. While that logic and the math behind it still holds true this cycle, the large number of candidates this time does not necessarily require it to achieve one's electoral goals - depending on what those goals are.

Here are a two scenarios at opposite ends of the spectrum this election cycle.

  • If you truly only have one candidate you really, really want to see get elected, then bullet voting would still apply.  That is where you vote for a single candidate and leave the other 4 votes uncast.  This strategy is often used to support minority candidates to get enough votes in a voting block to bring that candidate into the top tier.  In a plurality election with a large number of candidates where the winners will receive a small overall vote share, this could be particularly effective.
  • If you want a true change in direction at Town Hall for more transparency and accountability to the public, the number of challengers this cycle allows you to pick a full slate of new elected officials for the Board, so withholding votes to achieve this goal is not necessary.  The purpose of withholding votes (or voting for less than five) is to ensure you don't just give a vote to someone you really don't want on the Board which could put them ahead of someone you do want.  Due to the number of candidates this time, you can vote a full slate of 5 without having to give any votes to incumbents if that's what you want to do.
The questions voters should ask themselves this cycle are these.

Do I agree with the direction the status quo is taking the town and is a given candidate a part of the status quo?

To determine the answers look at issues such as The Catalyst Project, Beaty Street RFP, allowing voters to decide on spending on new Town Hall, support for the Rural Area Plan mass rezoning, and support for controversial projects such as the Griffith Street hotel or the Potts Street development.  You should also look at how they've handled the I77 HOT lanes project.

Incumbents running this time have some role in all of the above list of issues.  Of the incumbents, Jim Fuller has the most voter friendly record on these issues.  He voted against new Town Hall spending without voter approval.  He voted against sending the Beaty Street RFP to the contract phase before it failed.  He is asking the hardest questions on the Griffith Street Hotel.  However, on an issue like the I77 HOT lanes, none of the sitting Davidson Commissioners would be described as strong anti-toll leaders.  Davidson has passed by far the weakest anti-toll resolutions over the years, and none of the sitting Commissioners sought to censure Mayor Woods when he went to Raleigh and advocated for the tolls against the Town's stated position.

When looking at the challengers, they tend to fall into two groups.  Candidates who have been in the orbit of Town Hall for years and true newcomers.  Your choices here would seem to be options of filling the void with people who have long been "in the know"  with Town Hall but less than willing to aggressively fight its bad ideas or selecting newcomers to the political arena who will approach challenges with a fresh perspective.

Regardless, this election with its large number of candidates provides Davidson voters with the rare opportunity of having real choices, and how voters choose to strategically cast their ballots will determine the outcome.

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