May elections are always an interesting ride. Candidates, voting advocacy groups and newspaper editorial boards like ours spend plenty of energy on candidates and measures, and then, when voting time comes around, so few vote. Even in years when there's no presidential election, voter turnout in a November election is far higher than in May. In November 2022, some 69.94% of Deschutes County voters turned out to vote for city council candidates, state legislators and members of Congress. But this May, only 31.74% of voters turned in their ballots. If you can manage it, it seems that having your election take place in May gives you a better chance of maintaining the status quo, or, at least, winning your election with the help of the fewest number of voters involved as possible.
If it bothers you to hear that a minority of voters are deciding who gets to lead agencies such as the Bend Park and Recreation District or the Deschutes Library Board, the first method of correction is, of course, to not be one of the voters who doesn't bother to fill out the ballot that comes to your mailbox (with free postage, to boot). But here's another thing to chew on: In one of the most contentious races of this past election, the outcome was decided by fewer than 3.2% of Deschutes County residents.
Elections such as the Deschutes County Library Board are split into zones, in which voters who reside in a certain area get to vote only for the candidate running to represent that zone.
In the case of the library board, voters in Redmond get to vote for the candidate who's representing Redmond; voters in southeast Bend vote on the candidate representing that zone. If you don't like the direction a candidate is taking on an issue that can affect the entire county, you have no recourse. It will be up to the few thousand other people who bother to vote in that zone to change the direction.
In the case of the contentious library board election and its longtime member Raymond Miao, a total of 8,478 voters voted in the Zone 4 election that decided that outcome, with 5,029 voting for Miao. Deschutes County reported 154,956 eligible voters as of the May election, so the 5,029 who voted for Miao represent 3.2% of all voters in the county.
In 2017, when the Bend City Council considered moving to a ward system similar to the one used for the Deschutes library board, we advocated in favor of it. Back then, it seemed to our editorial board that geographic representation would be a better way to offer agency and direct representation for places like the east side, for example, where historically fewer city councilors live. The council ultimately decided against putting that issue on the ballot.
Then-Bend City Councilor Nathan Boddie posited that, "Ward races could increase campaign spending and create 'soft target' candidates that special interests could influence," according to reporting from OPB. Some members of the public told the council that they wanted all city council candidates to work for their votes, and did not want their access to the city council to be limited to fewer people.
With the benefit of hindsight, we agree with these positions. As is clear from the low voter turnout this election, the ward system has not energized voting within those zones and continues to leave the fate of countywide issues in the hands of a few cloistered voters. We suspect that with Bend's growth, if these zones continue, there will be more under-representations and election shenanigans in our future.
Editor's note: The print edition of this story indicated that the Bend-La Pine Schools board is split into geographical zones that allow voters only from that geographical area to vote for candidates representing that zone. That was incorrect and the examples indicated regarding BLPS have been removed from this story. A correction will run in the 6/8/23 issue. We regret the error.