MY SPIDEY SENSE first tingled maybe a month ago, reading comments on various local Facebook pages about local politics.
“Hmmm,” said the little voice in the back of my head. “Seems like the loudest voices complaining about Savannah politicians don’t actually live in Savannah and therefore can’t vote in this election.”
I didn’t think much of it. But looking back at all the times I heard someone end a pointed political rant about “City Clowncil” with, “Sure am glad I don’t live in Savannah anymore”……
Well, it should have been painfully obvious what was in store Election Day, which was pretty much a victory for the dysfunctional status quo.
The turnout for the election, somewhere around 35 percent, was low but not really that low for a non-presidential year.
There are three runoffs set for Dec. 1: Edna Jackson vs. Eddie DeLoach for Mayor, Mary Osborne vs. Bill Durrence for District 2, and Alicia Blakely vs. Brian Foster for Alderman at Large Post Two.
Long story short, there is still a chance for major change, but also an even or better-than-even chance of virtually no change.
But something else in some ways even more frightening happened Election Day, besides the reelection of almost all the very worst incumbents on City Council.
It became apparent in the rapidly spawning proliferation of bitterly outraged Facebook posts early in the day, saying “I showed up to vote but it was closed, this can’t be legal.”
It became apparent in anecdotes from people who said poll workers were wearily asking all voters as they came in, “Do you live in the City or the County?”
It became apparent in more outraged rants later that day along the lines of, “I have a Savannah address, why are they telling me I can’t vote for mayor of Savannah?”
It became apparent with all the accounts of people literally driving up to polling places in unincorporated Chatham County and pulling off angrily when they saw no poll workers and no voting machines.
I actually heard about one well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided soul who drove downtown from Wilmington Island, just looking around for a place to vote! What were they thinking?!
And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: There are probably thousands of new and/or newly engaged voters in the area without a basic grasp of how our elections work here.
For whatever reason – being new to the area, a general lack of curiosity, receiving calls and mailouts from City campaigns -- they were under the mistaken impression that they were eligible to vote in this City election.
They simply didn’t know that we have both a City and County government, that living in unincorporated Chatham County and not paying City taxes but working in the City does NOT then give you the “right” to vote in the City, that having a Savannah postal address isn’t the same thing as living inside City limits and having City voting rights.
This entire time they thought they could vote in this election, but couldn’t. Hundreds, probably thousands of them.
Literally the most basic building block of our democracy is that you vote where you live and where you pay property taxes. Period, point blank.
You don’t get to vote in a place just because it’s on your postal address, or just because you commute to work there from the suburbs.
But after I got over my initial shock and pulled my jaw up from the floor, I realized it’s not only a matter of low information voters not understanding middle school level civics.
I believe the media failed these people. In my zeal to cover the elections in-depth here at Connect Savannah, it never occurred to me that those column inches might be better spent on basic civics education for new residents and new voters here.
I just assumed people knew. That was my mistake. I should have taken into account the number of new arrivals to the area who haven't been following local politics as long as I have.
I suspect many of these outraged folks – who maybe just bought a house on Talahi or who rent an apartment on Wilmington – recently moved here from places with a merged City/County government, where they do indeed get to vote for mayor, even if they live in the suburbs.
Our system is a bit quirky: EVERYONE in Chatham County, in and out of Savannah, has a County Commissioner and can vote in Countywide elections. But ONLY those in the City have an Alderman or Alderwoman and can vote for Mayor. The fact that Savannah and Chatham County do indeed have a merged police department also adds to the confusion.
The huge extent of the misunderstanding on Election Day also shows how very different things could be if those folks had actually been able to vote, as they thought they could up until the last minute.
We certainly wouldn’t be looking at a return of almost all incumbents, as is the case now.
Can you imagine how different the conversation would be today?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was some mechanism for including ALL voters in Chatham County in races for Mayor and Council?
Some well-established legal mechanism which, say, begins with “C” and ends with “N” and has “onsolidatio” between?
Election Day showed us in the most graphic possible way that the best path forward for Savannah and Chatham County is... Consolidation.
A consolidated City/County government, as is very common with most medium-to-large cities and counties throughout Georgia and the United States, would mean that the renter on Wilmington and the new homeowner off Hwy 17 could vote for Savannah Mayor.
Of course nothing’s that simple: They might have to pay a bit more in taxes for services they don’t currently enjoy. Not paying taxes might be one reason they’re in the suburbs in the first place.
But that would be part of the debate and the discussion.
Consolidation, as imperfect as it is, is the only known cure for the particular malady which manifested so painfully this past Tuesday. This election proved it in my mind, graphically and beyond the shadow of a doubt.