There is nothing scarier in the field of political prognostication than trying to figure out what voters were saying through their votes — what the result of an election means.
In 2008, Shelby County voters were asked to vote on two sets of amendments to the Shelby County charter. One of them included a charter amendment that expanded term limits to several other countywide offices but in the process amended the existing limit of two consecutive terms for the mayor and county commission to three consecutive terms.
Voters rejected that package of charter amendments prompting another vigorous debate on the County Commission about term limits. Some on the commission concluded that voters were for term limits and specifically for no more than two consecutive terms. Others on the commission said voters were sending a message that they were opposed to any term limits including the ones they approved in the 1990s.
The next batch of county charter amendments included a two term limit and was approved by county voters.
So, what was the sentiment voters were expressing in their rejection last week of the half percent city sales tax hike?
From talking with a decidedly unscientific sampling of voters — folks I ran across the day after the votes were counted — I heard several reasons among those who voted.
Keep in mind only seven percent of the city’s voters showed up for early voting or election day.
With that context and disclaimer, what I heard for the most part was distrust that for some was heightened the more that advocates of the plan insisted they had removed the well deserved doubts that existed when a countywide sales tax hike was on the ballot a year ago this month. And advocates didn’t seem to have a really good comeback for that. They put the pre-k commission out there like that should be the end of the discussion.
Instead it was just the beginning for some and the point of contact with a loosely organized opposition trying to topple the easiest kind of ballot question to defeat – a tax hike of any kind.
For most of those opposed to the tax hike and to those who just had more questions than answers, the discussion wasn’t about whether pre kindergarten should be expanded.
It was about whether city leaders could be trusted to use the money properly and why it took raising the sales tax rate when the city apparently has money to do a lot of other things.
Some of those things are done by the administration advancing money from one pocket to another — to use the best analogy of how money and therefore responsibility has been compartmentalized for decades in city government.
The reasoning for why some money can be used for one thing and not another is technical and works well on a chart. Increasingly, it doesn’t seem to work that well in a much more political context, like a referendum.
That doesn’t change the legal reality of what the money can and cannot be used for.
But the problem is proponents of such uses also haven’t changed the context of their argument and the way they approach a suspicious and skeptical electorate that has now voted down two sales tax proposals in a year for the same general purpose.
That has happened as suburban voters, who are more conservative on such matters, overwhelmingly approved sales tax hikes in their towns and cities.
Even with all of the votes from last week counted and only awaiting certification, it is hard for proponents not to continue to recite the same talking points about the need for prekindergarten.
What I’ve heard indicates that wasn’t the issue for most of the few who went to the polls. The issue was a distrust that those who put in place the safeguards to make sure the new tax revenue got to prekindergarten services could just as easily divert the money as an advance on some other project and there was nothing anyone could do about it when it happened.
It’s not the only reason.
In a city that hasn’t seen even half of the voting base turnout for a non-presidential election for nearly 20 years and hasn’t had an off-election year in about a decade, you always have to factor in voters who just don’t know that it is always about to be election day somewhere in Shelby County these days.
The Nov. 21 elections were the last in a series of 11 elections in three months in Shelby County. Only two of them were regularly scheduled election cycles.
Election fatigue may be the other factor we are dealing with in what seems to be a larger issue about how relevant our political campaigns and their tactics are to the greater number of Shelby County voters who just aren’t showing up at the polls for a number of reasons.