Go figure. In a widely publicized election that could decide how Portland governs itself in the coming years, only 14 percent of the city’s voters went to the polls.

What’s more, by the time the smoke cleared late Tuesday night, a slate of progressive newcomers had won seats on the city’s Charter Commission, while the not-so-progressive candidates were sent packing.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. When it comes to the role turnout plays in any election, this thing was over before it started.

“In a tiny-turnout election, if you’ve got organization, if you’ve got people who give a damn, you’re going to win,” Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, said in an interview Wednesday. “And from what I’ve read in Portland, (progressive citizens) care more about these issues than the more moderate folks.”

Funny thing, voter turnout. Last November, 42,046 Portland voters cast ballots, the vast majority for Joe Biden in his successful quest to dethrone Donald Trump. Yet in Tuesday’s election – with the future of the city’s government very much at stake – the number of ballots cast totaled only 8,884.

Taking another step back, this week’s vote comes as the debate rages throughout the land over what hurdles should be erected, or not, between the voter and the ballot box.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans (with the help of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia) will likely prevent a sweeping set of reforms aimed at making voting easier from even coming up for a vote – let alone becoming law.

Meanwhile, in Augusta, majority Democrats on Tuesday defeated three Republican-sponsored bills that would have required voters to provide official identification before they could obtain a ballot.

Yet for all the oratory over who should be allowed to vote and under what rules, an Election Day like Tuesday comes and goes with barely a ripple across the electorate. (In my hometown of Buxton, with 6,767 registered voters, a paltry 301 of us saw fit to cast ballots on the school budget and assorted other local races.)

UMF professor Melcher attributes the anemic turnouts in local elections to two factors.

The first, he said, is what economists call the “information cost.” Meaning, how much effort do voters have to invest in learning who’s who and what’s what before picking up the ballot and making an informed decision?

In nonpartisan elections, which most local contests are, Melcher noted that acquiring that information is harder without a sophisticated party apparatus repeatedly feeding it to you for months in advance.

Melcher remembers the first time he voted, as a teenager in Madison, Wisconsin, in February of 1981. Much to his disappointment, his 18th birthday had fallen two months short of qualifying him to vote in the 1980 presidential election. Thus, when his first chance to vote did arrive, it was in a local, nonpartisan school board primary.

“Nine percent turnout,” Melcher recalled. “In a place that was completely obsessed with politics and perfectly capable of fighting about schools, 9 percent.”

Not only did most Madison voters know next to nothing about the local contest, he surmised, only the truly interested – those with a stake in the schools and an 18-year-old kid who loved politics – even gave a hoot.

“Something like the Charter Commission is of intense interest to a small number of people who are going to go out and vote in that kind of election because they really care about these kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues,” he said.

Which brings us to the other factor.

“It’s what political science calls ‘intensity,’ ” Melcher said. “It isn’t just how many noses are on one side versus another, it’s, ‘Do people care?’ ”

Portland’s progressive community cared a lot in this election. And as they campaigned for enhanced power in the office of the mayor, increased oversight of Portland’s police and more racial equity throughout the city, to name a few of their high-priority issues, they did so in a relative vacuum of competing ideas and philosophies.

There were, of course, candidates with different views – former longtime city councilor and mayor Cheryl Leeman and local restaurateur Steve DiMillo, to name a couple.

Leeman lost to newcomer Marcques Houston by 46 votes in their District 4 race. A total of 1,912 votes were cast, compared with more than 8,300 last November.

DiMillo, meanwhile, received 21.1 percent of the vote in an 11-way, ranked-choice race for four at-large seats on the commission. But as the ranked-choice elimination rounds proceeded, that’s pretty much where he stayed until he was ultimately vanquished by progressive Pat Washburn, who initially had claimed just 4 percent of the vote.

Translation: The progressive candidates and, more importantly, their supporters stuck together from start to finish. They created the headlines, they knocked on the doors, and they kindled whatever interest in a charter revision was out there in the first place. In the end, what little opposition they attracted got steamrolled by that intensity.

So here residents of Portland now sit – those who voted and those who didn’t. For the next year or so, they’ll watch as the commission pursues any number of fundamental changes to Portland city government that they may, or may not, find acceptable.

Commissioner-elect Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef provided a sneak preview of her path forward with this tweet on Wednesday about Portland’s current city manager: Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Jon Jennings is a white supremacist! Abolish the city manager position!

Some will be appalled by that kind of rhetoric. They might even vow to pay the “information cost” and up their “intensity” when any proposed charter revisions come back before voters, likely in November of 2022. (You want higher turnout? See: Janet Mills vs. Paul LePage.)

But for now, Portlanders who were no-shows on Tuesday, you’re stuck in the cheap seats.

As Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”


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