Thursday, June 14, 2018

This precinct's color is blue, tinged with confusion -- June 14, 2018 column


“That’s ridiculous!” the angry voter roared at me. “Who do I complain to?”

It was Primary Day, and I was working as a city Election Officer or poll worker at the City Hall precinct in Alexandria, Va. My job was to greet voters and tell them something I assumed they’d already know.

“We’re having a Democratic primary and a Republican primary today,” I said hundreds of times, smiling. “You can vote in one or the other, but not both.”  

For some voters like this woman, though, that was infuriating news. She wanted to vote in both primaries and wasn’t giving up without a fight.  

The precinct election chief, overhearing her protests – who didn’t? – showed her a sample ballot with the pertinent section of Virginia Code about primaries: “No person shall vote for the candidates of more than one party.”

She redirected her ire toward Richmond and asked for a Democratic ballot.   

It would be easy to dismiss her as dumb, but the story is more nuanced. For one thing, she had plenty of company in her confusion.

By my estimate, about one in 10 voters at my precinct Tuesday either thought there was only a Democratic primary or knew there were two primaries and thought they could vote in both.

Virginia voters don’t register to vote by party and some infrequent voters had forgotten how the open primary system works.

In Alexandria, called “one of Virginia’s most lopsidedly Democratic bastions” by The Washington Post, the Democratic primary is typically the decisive election for local offices. At the City Hall precinct, of 904 ballots cast, 851 were Democratic.

The city of 150,000 residents had hotly contested mayoral and city council races. Democratic candidates flooded voters by mail and phone, knocked on their doors and stopped them at farmer’s markets. Local weeklies carried pages of letters to the editor by neighbors asking neighbors to vote for their favorite candidates.

The perpetual issue is development – how much and where.

Residents of Old Town worry more new hotels and condos along the riverfront will ruin the ambiance of the brick-walked city George Washington frequented. Some voters are also fed up with ever-rising real estate taxes.

But Alexandria faces mounting financial pressure for education and social services in an increasingly diverse city where public school children speak 120 languages and nearly two in three receive free or reduced price meals.

On a day when other women candidates across the state did well, incumbent Mayor Allison Silberberg, a soft-spoken and lonely opponent of development on council, lost to pro-development Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who said when he announced his candidacy for mayor, “Preservation of the status quo is not a vision.”

Wilson, 39, had strong support among parents in the Del Ray neighborhood, while Silberberg, 55, was popular with well-to-do retirees in Old Town, the Post reported.

There was a strong “throw the rascals out” mood toward city council. A dozen candidates ran for the six seats, and two of four incumbents seeking re-election lost. 

Among the winning newcomers are a 32-year old woman, a Sudanese refugee and a first-generation Mexican American.   

Since the only Republican contest was for the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in November, several self-proclaimed lifelong Republicans reluctantly asked for the Democratic ballot. They wanted a voice in city government, even though it meant not having one in choosing the Senate candidate.   

At least a few asking for both ballots were Democrats who wanted to help Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in his re-election bid by voting for the weakest Republican. They needn’t have worried.

Virginia Republicans obliged by choosing Corey Stewart, a Trump extremist who supports keeping Confederate monuments in place. 

Turnout in the off-year primary was light around the state. But in Alexandria, about 23 percent of registered voters turned out – up from 16 percent three years ago – even though it was a lovely spring day with a huge parade and celebration just across the Potomac in Washington at midday for the Washington Capitals.

There was no confusion about who won the Stanley Cup.

House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. famously said all politics is local. Sometimes, as in Alexandria on Tuesday, local politics is all.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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