I don’t mean to alarm you, but last week in Ravalli County, 351 people voted to reelect treasurer Valerie Stamey.
The primary happened while she was on paid leave, pending the results of an investigation that has spent several months and $70,000 trying to figure out what happened while she was in office, and 351 people voted to hire her again. That doesn’t include the people who wanted to cast their ballots for Stamey but, when they pulled the lever, only poured soft-serve onto the floor of Dairy Queen until they were asked to leave.
I wish the voters of Missoula had such could-do spirit. We’re a fickle bunch, as incumbent County Commissioner Michele Landquist learned when she lost her Democratic primary to Nicole “Cola” Rowley.
Rowley is a relative unknown. Landquist, on the other hand, is known to anyone who reads the news as Missoula’s most reliable quote. She seems to hold no opinion that she will not put frankly, and she laid the blame for her loss where it belonged: on the voters.
“Missoula let Missoula down,” she told the Missoulian. “I thought Missoulians were much more engaged in the election process and getting people in office that they trust.”
That’ll teach you to overestimate us, Landquist—the rubes win again! I’m not certain that an incumbent losing her primary to a well-run campaign is necessarily an instance of voter apathy. Landquist seems to be showing off her knack for speaking eloquently in the moments just before she thinks, which is too bad because she also happens to be right.
Of the 85,000 registered voters in Missoula County, 21,000 voted last week, putting the number of us who exercise any influence on the government of our county at one in four. That’s like loading up a car with friends, asking everyone where they want to go, then sitting silently while the driver mechanically takes you to his office. For the analogy to be complete, you have to complain once you get there. “This office sucks,” you say, having refused to pick a destination. “Why did we come here? Why were the roads so bad?”
It’s not as if our county government offered nothing to vote about. Besides being an election year, 2014 was also the year that Missoula County sued the Department of Justice. The county has paid out over $530,000 in claims and legal fees since 2010, including $120,000 for claims that originated within the sheriff’s department.
It’s a lively government that generated these stories, and people know about them. As with the weather, though, everybody talks about county politics but no one ever seems to do anything.
One-in-four voter turnout isn’t just a problem because it disconnects us from our government. It’s also a problem because, as we all know, one in four people is crazy. You keep three people around that guy and he can live normally in society, but leave him alone and he turns to projects.
And crazy people love to vote. Missoula’s low turnout increases the relative power of weirdos by a factor of more than four, since nuts are statistically overrepresented in local elections. Consider the 351 souls who voted to reelect Stamey as Ravalli County treasurer. Those are some hardcore voters, right there. The people who come out for the suspended treasurer who broke the county are going to come out every time, and they will influence the government according to some inscrutable value system that is not your own.
That’s the only thing we know for certain about the 25 percent of registered voters who determined the course of Missoula government last week: They differ from most people in the county, at least in one way. Maybe they voted the way we all secretly feel, in a neat statistical representation of the silent majority. Or maybe we have ceded too much power to the pathologically engaged, to the party hacks and the fervent believers.
Make no mistake—those people are happy to see the ordinary voter stop meddling in electoral politics. You don’t need to convince people to join your side to win an election. You just need to convince the people who aren’t on your side not to care. Last week, 75 percent of Missoula’s electorate did not care enough to vote, and that gave a lot of power to whoever showed up.
Those people got to shape a government that was a little bigger than it was last time, that moves around a little more money and influences the lives of a few thousand more people. Missoula County is growing fast. Unless more of us take an interest in how we are governed, the weirdos’ share of power will grow, too.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and weirdos at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.