Thursday, November 10, 2005

Editorial: Blank ballots

Published in the Current

(Nov 10, 2005): Hundreds of voters in South Portland entered the ballot booth and did not make a choice. Hundreds of absentee voters did the same thing, leading us to wonder why.

Some people did not cast a vote for at least one council race, turning in partially blank ballots rather than picking a name.

Did they not know enough about the candidates to make a choice? Did they not know they were allowed to vote in all council races, no matter what district they themselves live in?

It is not that they didn’t take the time to vote. We’re talking here about the people who actually held ballots in their hands, whether at home or City Hall in advance of Tuesday’s vote, or in a polling place on Election Day itself.

Others, who did not vote at all, also disappointed us. No more than half of the registered voters in any of our communities took the time to vote. When a statewide showing of 40 percent is considered “good” – and our communities did a few percentage points better – we are being ruled by the minority any way we cut it.

Either the majority, who don’t vote, don’t care about what happens or thinks those who do vote are doing a fine job making the choices. We hope it’s the latter, but we fear it is the former instead.

We also note that a number of important races went uncontested this year. While there were hotly contested races in all three communities, there were also races completely uncontested in all three. And those races were not just for the Portland Water District or the Scarborough Sanitary District, where some degree of technical knowledge and an equal measure of tolerance for bureaucratic drudgery are needed.

In Scarborough, nobody but the three incumbents put their names in for the Town Council races. In Cape and South Portland, only two people ran for two seats on the respective school boards.

That speaks to a lack of willingness to get involved. That may spill over into not voting, as well – though the ballot booth is a perfect place to put your priorities into action. It’s anonymous, specific and legally binding – what better way to have your say on the future of your community?

But why go to the trouble of voting and then leave sections blank? We’re not sure here, and would like to know why.

Is the problem, for example, South Portland’s unusual voting structure, which mandates that members of the City Council and School Board live in different areas of the city but answer to all voters in the city? It does result in the possibility that – as happened Tuesday in two council races – a person can lose his or her home district but still be seated to represent them.

Is the problem lack of information prior to voting? Is it uncertainty about what questions a voter is supposed to actually decide on? Is it confusion about what the questions were in fact asking? Is it something else entirely?

If you were one of those who left a ballot question blank, please tell us. Call us at 883-3533 or e-mail Jeff Inglis, editor, at

Sending mixed messages

Mainers have overwhelmingly agreed to borrow $74 million for state projects, increasing their own taxes, and to remove some of the tax burden from owners of working-waterfront property. And a rejection of $9 million – the second-smallest bond on the ballot – for the University of Maine System appears at Wednesday’s deadline time to be just barely failing, hardly able to be held up as a sign of residents rejecting excessive state spending.

So lawmakers at the state and local levels can be excused for doubting whether the people of Maine really want lower taxes. Even in Scarborough, where residents rejected a $1.2 million local bond and a charter change that would have loosened control of council spending, voters supported the statewide bonds.

In South Portland, voters supported fiscally conservative candidates and a $500,000 local road-paving bond, as well as the five statewide bonds. In Cape, incumbent Councilor Anne Swift-Kayatta, one of the lead proponents of a town government spending cap linked to the consumer price index, was the top vote-getter while $83 million in state spending also passed with flying colors.

Lawmakers have expressed to us in the past a sense of confusion about what taxpayers really want: People often say they want lower taxes, but object if their particular favorite program is on the chopping block.

Now that is even muddier: Local spending is worth controlling, but state spending – widely blasted by residents and politicians alike as “out of control” – gets a big green light.

We should not be surprised to see more local and state spending as a result of this confusion, nor should it shock us if more people cry out in financial pain even as they vote for higher taxes.

Jeff Inglis, editor