Even by party-primary standards — with turnout percentages that traditionally are lower than those for general elections — this year’s figures are dismal, almost rivaling the meager turnout associated with special elections.
Nor is the outlook good for more elevated levels of voting on Election Day itself — Tuesday, May 4. One way or another, the primary elections of 2010 may well turn out to have been affected by acts of God.
One problem stems from the same rains and violent weather which wreaked havoc on this year’s Beale St. Musicfest, curtailing the shows’ duration and preventing various headliners from even getting here.
Even if optimistic forecasts prevail and Tuesday turns out to be warm and sunny, unhindered by the continuing stormfront that was first predicted, there has been such extensive flood damage in parts of Shelby County that the very act of getting to certain polling sites could be difficult or even prohibitive.
There was a report on Sunday that Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins have been consulting with the elections officials of various counties about legal strategies for postponing voting. The same rambunctious elements that caused flooding in much of Shelby County resulted in even direr complications elsewhere in the state — especially when accompanied by tornadic activity.
To say the least, optimism about this week’s weather is not widespread.
Who, then, will brave the elements — and the apathy — to go vote? The hardier party cadres will, of course, as will the partisans of the better organized candidates — though, as in any low-turnout election, those candidates who have name recognition going in will be disproportionately favored.
That’s a factor that could be unusually significant in selected races — the Democratic primary for mayor, for example.
Interim mayor Joe Ford not only has the incumbency to benefit him but whatever network resources and name identification revolve around his family name. His chief opponent, county commissioner Deidre Malone, is relatively more dependent on attracting new voters to the polls.
But it isn’t just the parties or the established organizations that may get out such vote enjoy an edge in getting out the vote this week.
There’s also a religious element at work. The political involvement of black churches has long been a factor in local elections. Hence the obligatory appearances by candidates, especially Democratic candidates, at Sunday worship services in African-American neighborhoods.
What is different this year is that there may be more of an equivalent movement associated with white churches — especially the evangelical or fundamental ones.
At those candidate forums at which he has appeared, Dale Lane, who commands the Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT team, has never failed to proclaim his religious faith — as at a League of Women Voters’ forum last month, when he asserted in his opening statement, “The most important thing in my life is my relationship with Christ. That relationship provides the foundation for every decision I make.”
One secular-minded voter was heard to say as she departed that event, “Well, I know I know who I’m not going to vote for.”
But such a reaction may be unfair to Lane, a respected law-enforcement officer who has never suggested that he would in any way impose his religious beliefs on anyone nor allow them to countermand the requirements of the law. On the surface at least, his profession of faith is nothing more than that.
But the constituency to whom such statements appeal may be less — or more — nuanced in its reaction to the political moment.
At a forum for District 4 county commission candidates in Collierville last month, one at which numerous other Republican candidates for office were invited to speak, restaurateur Tony Sarwar, the host for the event, quoted scripture to the point that the Lord rejoices “when He sees his brothers united.”
Every candidate who spoke was then asked to declare his or her stand on the issues of abortion and prayer in the schools. Neither matter is ever likely to surface in relation to any of the public offices being sought — but those two issues are clearly still hot-button controversies in the minds of many voters.
“I know sometimes politics and religious don’t go together,” Sarwar had said by way or prefacing the evening. But manifestly they do for many — and in a low-turnout election voters' perceptions of candidates’ religious identities or of where they stand on abortion, prayer, gay rights, and other social issues could well impact the result, especially in close races.
Given the unusual set of variables affecting this year’s vote, any number of candidates could be — either literally or metaphorically — saying their prayers as they face the verdict of the voters on Tuesday.