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2007 State, Local "Off-Year" Elections Important


2007 State, Local Elections Important Despite Low Voter Turnout

"All registered voters should exercise their constitutional right," a November 5 editorial in the Reading Eagle, a newspaper in Berks County, Pennsylvania, urged. "Tuesday is Election Day, but because it's an off-year election, voter turnout will be low ... and that's a shame," the editorial stated, adding that even though national races attract more interest, "local races in the off-year elections have a greater impact on the daily lives" of average citizens.

Across the country, millions of Americans ignored that advice and stayed home November 6. A few districts reported voter turnouts of more than 50 percent of registered voters, but most saw far fewer. However, for voters and nonvoters alike, the 2007 state and local elections will affect how they live and how tax dollars are spent in their communities for years to come.

Three states elected governors in 2007. On November 6, Kentucky voters sent Democrat Steve Beshear, a former lieutenant governor, to the governor's mansion; and Mississippi voters re-elected popular Republican incumbent Haley Barbour. Louisiana's next governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, was chosen October 20.

State legislators were elected November 6 in Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia, but voters in Louisiana must wait until November 17 to select representatives from among top finishers in an October 20 election. Legislature elections are particularly important for national politics because the party that controls a state legislature will have the power to redraw congressional districts after the 2010 Census. (See related article.)

"With term limits taking effect for the first time in Louisiana and close chambers in the other three states, big changes could be in the wind," Tim Storey predicted in a November 5 blog posting on the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site.

The off-year elections "offer a snapshot of where the parties stand in these states and a glimpse of relative party strength nationwide headed into the 2008 elections," Storey said.

CHANGES COMING TO STATEHOUSES, CITY HALLS

Despite Barbour's win in Mississippi, the 2007 elections mostly continued the Democratic shift evident in the 2006 U.S. elections.

In 2006, Democrats gained control of both houses in 22 states, Republicans held 15, and 12 statehouses were divided. (The Nebraska Legislature is nonpartisan.) In 2007, Virginia shifted from Republican to divided, as Democrats won a majority in the state Senate. Democrats also appear to have gained control of the Mississippi Senate, winning 27 of 52 seats, but recounts are possible in several close races. The New Jersey Legislature stayed Democratic, but nearly one-third of the state's legislators will be serving their first terms in January 2008.

In big-city mayoral races, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Utah's Salt Lake City all elected or re-elected Democrats. Returning incumbents include Bill White (Houston), who organized the unexpected arrival of 250,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005; Luke Ravenstahl (Pittsburgh), one of the country's youngest big-city mayors at 27; and Gavin Newsom (San Francisco), who defeated 13 challengers to retain his post.

With Michael Nutter's victory, Philadelphia extended its 55-year streak of Democratic mayors, while Salt Lake City voters elected registered Democrat Ralph Becker in an officially nonpartisan race. The courteous Becker succeeds the colorful Rocky Anderson, who made national headlines in March by calling for President Bush's impeachment.

Sheila Dixon, who took over as Baltimore's mayor when her predecessor became Maryland's governor in January, was elected to the city's top job by a large margin. (See related article.)

POLITICS LOCAL, AND FRIENDLY, IN CHERRYDALE

The bitter partisan politics so well publicized on Capitol Hill and so evident in many television ads leading up to Election Day were absent from the St. Agnes Parish hall in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, where two volunteers -- one Democrat and one Republican -- chatted amiably in the drizzle well outside the entrance to the polls. (Laws require "electioneering," the promotion of a candidate or party, to be carried out a set distance away from the polling place.)

"I have three sons approaching college age," Rob Beckman told USINFO, "so I have a stake in ensuring the world is a more peaceful place for them." When asked why he chose to spend a rainy day outdoors handing out Democratic literature, Beckman, a scout leader, cited the Boy Scout credo -- "I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country" -- and the importance of forming "small habits" like regular voting and volunteering, as the foundations of civic responsibility.

His companion, and competition, on this rainy day was Frank Emerson, who distributed the Republican sample ballot. "I volunteer at the local level hoping to liberalize things ... [to help] move away from single-party rule," he said, adding, "I'm concerned about the loose handling of money" in the predominantly Democratic Arlington County government.

Len Baldyga, elections chief at the Cherrydale precinct in the Virginia 8th Congressional District, arrived before dawn with his team of volunteers to open the polls, set up the voting machines and prepare to confirm voter eligibility. That same team of 10 closed down the polling place at the end of day and tallied the votes under the scrutiny of "poll watchers" sent by political parties to observe the process.

Despite a workday that can stretch into 14 hours, Baldyga said there is no shortage of volunteers in Cherrydale. "This precinct is good about getting people." He predicted voter turnout in Cherrydale would be a little higher than usual for an off-year election because of interest in the Arlington school board race and a possible shift in control of the Virginia Legislature.

As polls closed and volunteers headed home to a well-deserved rest or to await results at victory parties, the attention of politicians, party workers and politically aware citizens shifted forward, to next November and the 2008 national elections.

ENDS

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