OCEAN CITY – A growing trend in Ocean City elections appears to be for voters to leave some slots blank on their ballot boxes, raising the question if this small town election is being influenced at all by the votes that weren’t cast.
In Tuesday’s election, a record low percentage of voters, 23.5 percent, showed up to the polls. Of the 1,521 actual voters that came to the polls, all had the option of voting for up to four candidates for City Council, and the lone mayoral candidate.
Of the possible 6,084 votes to be cast for the City Council, only 5,176 were actually cast, leaving 908 hanging in the balance. Rick Meehan gained 958 votes of the 1,521.
The trend can only be attributed to “single-shot” voting, an issue that is what Mayor Rick Meehan called “a part of the democratic process in elections in this country.”
Single-shot voting is essentially a tactic used by voters when they get behind the curtain, choosing only one candidate or a lesser amount of candidates than open seats.
For instance, if a voter only felt strongly for two of the candidates running for City Council, the remaining two votes go essentially un-cast.
Opponents of “single-shot” voting call it a skewing of the democratic process, while proponents simply call it strategic voting to help a specific candidate.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas defended the tactic, saying the voter is at liberty to cast their vote however they choose.
“There is no particular process a voter has to adhere to. Single shot voting is a part of the democratic process and I find no reason to challenge it,” she said. “Who to vote for and who not to vote for is the right and personal decision of each individual voter.”
Historically, “single shot” voting was a tactic used by minority voters in highly populated minority areas, like Mississippi for instance, to get their candidate elected.
In Terry v. Adams in 1953, Alabama legislature passed a bill outlawing “single-shot” voting in municipal elections conducted at large. This bill prevented black voters from casting votes for only black candidates in order to get them elected. The bill was repealed in 1961. The bill called the practice “a way for minority groups to gain control of local government through strategic voting.”
Locally, single shot voting is certainly not done for issues of race or creed or gender, but more so, to get a preferred candidate elected. There have been proposed anti-single shot provisions encouraging voters to cast a vote for each open seat, and in some extreme proposed provisions, not counting the vote of anyone who doesn’t fill out the entire card, however that does not apply to Ocean City.
City Council President Joe Mitrecic also defended the voters’ right, saying, “It has been widely accepted that the ‘single bullet vote’ is the most effective way to make sure your particular candidate receives that vote. There are other municipalities that are instituting ‘full card voting.’ It does seem to me that more and more people vote for just the few candidates that they want to win. My gut feeling on this is you should be able to vote for whomever it is that you want to win, and not possibly cancel your vote for a candidate by voting for a full slate.”
A look into the numbers shows that the amount of “single shot” voting, though certainly within the voter’s rights, could directly impact the way the election sways.
The difference between the fourth and final council seat won by Joe Hall and fifth-place finisher Brent Ashley in Tuesday’s election was only 52 votes, and when compared to the 908 votes that were left un-cast, it’s easy to see that even a small percentage of those votes could have made a difference. In the 2006 election, the final council seat was won by Mary Knight, by 74 votes over the same Joe Hall, who won on Tuesday. In that election, there were 923 un-cast votes.
Knight said she tends to look at the percentages rather than the actual numbers to tell the story of voters.
“If you look at it from 2006, those 74 votes that decided between myself and Joe Hall accounted for 5 percent of the vote, and I’m sure that if there was a 5 percent difference between Barack Obama and John McCain in a particular state, they’d be very happy with that,” she said. “I’ve always believed in the sanctity of the voting system, and I think voters are very passionate about whom they like and they vote accordingly.”
Former Councilwoman Nancy Howard said the more alarming number that people should look at is the low turnout of voters. The last two Ocean City elections have seen less than 25 percent of registered voters coming to the polls.
“Some people may be too indifferent or lazy, or perhaps think that their vote won’t count,” she said. “I believe it’s a right and a responsibility to vote. Once you get behind that curtain, you are on your own.”
Knight proposed looking into when the town holds the election and “maybe coinciding it with national election dates.”