THE BLOG

Next Week's Election and the Power of Six Votes

10/29/2013 04:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A major election is going on next week, so it's time to talk about Mike.

About 10 years ago, Mike was in the American Government class I teach at Oakland Community College. We were talking about elections, and I told the class that running for office was a great way to get involved in politics. Since Mike's town was having an election that year, he decided to take me up on my challenge.

Mike made a couple of big signs, ran off 200 flyers and spent all election day outside of his precinct, asking strangers to vote for him as a write-in candidate for precinct delegate. Mike spent 13 hours at that precinct, and at the end, he lost the election, having secured only two votes.

The candidate who won -- whose name was printed on the ballot -- received five votes.

Looking back, Mike didn't need the votes of lots of strangers; he just needed the votes of 5 friends and neighbors, plus his own. Rather than spend the day at the polls, he needed to have a pizza party at his house the Sunday before. This is the perfect kind of campaign rally needed to secure enough votes for a local election -- reach out to friends, and there's your margin of victory.

This takes us back to next week's election. Michigan elects its state officials in even-numbered years, so next week's elections are only for local offices. Candidates for these positions don't have a lot of money, so they usually don't run TV ads, put flyers on your front door or have computers call your house 84 times in a week.

Since these local campaigns are kind of low key, voters somehow get the impression these elections aren't all that important -- but nothing could be further from the truth. Positions on the school board, zoning commission and library board shape the quality of life and future direction of our towns -- the places where we live our lives -- in ways that are vastly more direct than the federal government. Obamacare certainly touches everyone's life, but the impact of putting a cocktail lounge next to the high school is more direct, and maybe even more important.

Somehow, voters don't see it that way, which is why over 50 percent of registered voters will turn out for a presidential election, but the turnout in a local election is usually less than 10 percent. In many cases, it can be as low as three percent.

This takes us back to Mike. Many people don't see precinct delegate as all that big of a deal, but all he needed to do to win that position was get a van full of people to vote. If Mike were running for something else -- say, school board -- and he wasn't the fair, balanced guy he was, that same van full of people could put him and three other people on the school board, and their extreme views would dominate the school for the next four to six years. This has happened in many local elections, where extremely conservative and liberal groups were able to force their will on a much bigger majority -- not because the majority agreed with them, but because the majority stayed home.

Democracy can still work with leaders that lean to the left or to the right, but leaders elected by a handful of voters isn't democracy at all. Your neighbors, your kids and your property values are all counting on you to guide your town to a future that's supported by a true majority. Find the time, make the difference and vote.