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Choice

Columnist: Mike Martini
September, 2014 Issue
Columnist

Mike Martini
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Often forgotten by the newly elected is that they’ve been elected to serve the entire jurisdiction—not only those who voted for them.

 
 
 
Is choosing not to choose a choice?
 
Sounds like a topic for late-night discussion with a bottle of Russian River Valley Chardonnay and a Jesuit education.
 
It comes to mind as I watch the debate unfold regarding Assembly Bill 2145. Proponents and opponents both point to choice as central to the discussion. But it actually has less to do with choice than it does with the political realization that the majority of people will do nothing.
 
A provision in the bill (now dropped) would require customers of community aggregators (local power agencies) to “opt in” rather than the current requirement that includes everyone unless they “opt out.”
 
If you support local community aggregators like Sonoma Clean Power, you want to make sure you have the greatest number of participants. Without them, the probability of success shrinks with the projected revenue stream. If you’re opposed, you want to limit the number of participants and doom the process to failure.
 
Enter the reality—the majority of rate payers will do nothing. The side that counts the “opt-nots” will prevail. Another public policy decision is determined by a minority supported by those who do nothing.
 
Look at our most recent election in Sonoma County. The Sonoma County Registrar of voters reported that 41 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the June primary election. That’s greater than the 25.1 percent turnout that was posted by the State of California as a whole, but it was still decided by a minority.
 
But even this is misleading. According to the U.S. Census, there are more than 359,000 residents in Sonoma County over the age of 18, but only 241,000 are registered to vote. Doing the math, only 27 percent of eligible voters made the decision that will move this county forward.
 
“Why” is a question for sociologists, political scientists and another bottle of Russian River Valley Chardonnay.
 
The easy answer is that people don’t care. I don’t agree. I think they care very much. They’re overwhelmed by their cares. They care about their significant others, children, jobs, safety and health. Their priorities are elsewhere. They’re content with local politics as long as they aren’t personally impacted.
 
This reality isn’t lost on political consultants, and it’s a lesson that a candidate learns early if he or she wants to be successful.
 
It’s not important to hear what people are thinking or what they want. It’s only important to hear what’s said by those “most likely” to vote in the next election. An individual’s voting record is public information: Not who they voted for, but if they voted at all and how often. The definition for “most likely” changes slightly by election, but each candidate with a good consultant arms him- or herself with a list of those people who will make the decision. These are the ones who get the mail; these are the ones who get a knock on the door. Precinct walking has become a science as neighborhoods are identified as to which have the greatest concentration of voters.
 
If really well prepared, the candidate is armed with prior polling data that identify the top three issues on the mind of those most likely to vote. With this information, the candidate knocks on the door and speaks only about those issues he or she already knows will be interesting.
 
This isn’t to paint elections in a cynical light only to drive the election turnout even lower. Rather, as we look forward to the fall elections, it’s to point out that the most successful candidate is often not the most successful public servant. Getting elected is important only to do the more important job, which is to serve the community. Often forgotten by the newly elected is that they’ve been elected to serve the entire jurisdiction—not only those who voted for them.
 
As you consider casting your vote, look beyond the superficial, listen past the sound bite and evaluate statements made to different groups. Be wary of pledges as public policy suffers in the face of inflexibility. A successful community thrives in an environment of compromise and consensus and fails miserably in one of intransigence.
 
But, whatever you do, you need to do your homework, know the issues, know the candidates—and you need to vote.
 
Make the choice to choose. Still have the bottle of Chardonnay, but leave the Jesuit philosophers to talk of greater things.

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