Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

Creative Commons photo by Andrew Taylor

Since the contentious election of President Donald Trump, Democrats have hoping and praying for a strategy to mute his power and hopefully recapture the White House in 2020.

The first salvos in this battle have been the special elections in Georgia and Montana to fill Congressional seats vacated by cabinet picks Tom Price and Ryan Zinke.

Although Republican businessman Greg Gianforte was a relative political novice like his opponent Rob Quist (the former had a failed run as Montana governor, while the latter is best known for his folk singing career), Gianforte was supposed to win by a large margin in a state Trump carried by 20 percentage points last fall. The numbers were surprisingly close and pundits were watching with bated breath, wondering what would happen.

But what nobody expected was that on the day before the election when Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs goes to interview Gianforte, the gloves came off.

Literally.

The congressional candidate allegedly assaulted the reporter. While there was no video of the event, the audio recording does not paint Gianforte in a good light at all.

Reaction was swift and condemnation almost universal. Newspapers that had endorsed the candidate changed their minds and Speaker Paul Ryan called upon Gianforte to apologize.

When Gianforte won the election, people were searching for meaning in the nail-biting election. Was it a validation of Trump’s policies? Are voters in Montana willing to support a candidate’s policies even when his or her personal behavior comes into question? When would the Democrats get a win?

The media, however, skimmed over the main reason why Gianforte won the election. When you look at the breakdown of the vote, the Republican’s victory was a foregone conclusion. As noted earlier, the state was solidly Republican just a few months ago. Out of a million residents, there are 700,000 registered voters. Of those who are registered, about 380,000 (54%) voted in the election.

So, why did a najority of Montanans who voted on Thursday support a guy who cold-cocked a member of the Fourth Estate?

Answer: They probably didn’t.

Most of the people who cast a ballot in Montana’s special election did so well before Jacobs walked into the room.

Here is where the math comes in. Of the 379,763 votes cast according to Montana’s Secretary of State, 276,203 were mailed in before fists started to fly. Only about 27% of voters visited their polling place on Thursday and filled out a ballot. In the end, Gianforte picked up 50% of the vote, with 189,000 people voting for him, while Democrat Rob Quist earned the support of 166,000 Montanans. Libertarian Mark Wicks received a mere 21,000 or so votes.

It would be totally reasonable to assume that most people who voted on Election Day were swayed by current events and supported Quist. But this turn of events wasn’t enough to overcome support that had been garnered in the weeks prior to May 25th.

Of course, both sides are claiming victory in the election, as politicians will do, but in the end Gianforte will be seated as a Member of Congress. You would think allegations of criminal behavior would preclude you from serving in the federal legislature, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Again, news outlets love focusing on the horse race of political contests, but the real story is systemic. Getting out the vote happens well before the polls open.

Last fall I worked on a campaign by canvassing door-to-door. I had an app on my iPhone with all sorts of data that had been collected, including who was registered as permanent vote-by-mail person (as are about six in ten voters in California). I still knocked on their doors and either talked to the residents or left some literature, but one might argue it was a wasted visit. While ahead in the early results, my candidate lost by less than one percent of the more than quarter-million votes cast. I can assure you that the absentee vote didn’t help.

Many people don’t like the inconvenience of going to their local polling place, waiting in line to be processed by volunteers before entering a contraption of sometimes questionable construction to fill in bubbles. How much easier is it to do this from your own home, where you can reference voting material in print or online as you are making your choices?

The challenge is that means we vote before we have all the information. I’m not talking about October Surprises, which often are planned events by the other party and its surrogates. I mean unscripted events, details and facts that come out that would sway your opinion of one candidate over another. For example, did James Comey try to tip the scales in favor of Trump alter the results of an election or was more going on that we didn’t know?

As a firm believer in encouraging an active and engaged citizenry in this representative republic of ours, I am a big fan of people casting their votes for the person they think will do the job best. That process takes time, so maybe voters should not be so quick to vote by mail but be willing to wait a bit longer before making such an important choice.

A good voter is an informed voter, if you ask me.

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  1. Pingback: Not-So-Special Elections – Federalist 10

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