In 1979, the city of Birmingham held what remains, arguably, the most pivotal municipal election in its history. I use the qualifier “arguably” because we also have to consider the election of 1963, when — after voting five months before to change the city’s form of government from a five-person commission to a mayor and city council — citizens went to the polls to elect the comparatively moderate Albert Boutwell as mayor, thus ending the long run of Eugene “Bull” Connor as the driving force in local government.
That result changed the course of Birmingham’s history, but more momentous still was the election 16 years later that made Richard Arrington Jr. the city’s first black mayor. Arrington’s win gave him the first of five terms he would go on to serve in the mayor’s office, ushering in what can be characterized as the “modern era” of Birmingham and setting the stage for much of the growth and progress that we continue to experience in the present day — as well as, it must be noted, a new brand of racial politics that had, and continues to have, both good and bad effects on the dynamics of our electoral process and the ways in which our city government does and does not work.
But that’s a topic for another day. At the moment, my reason for looking back at the election of 1979 has purely to do with numbers. More specifically, it has to do with one number, which is the percentage of eligible voters who were motivated to get themselves to their polling place and cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.
That year’s campaign featured six candidates in addition to Arrington, including the incumbent mayor, David Vann, and city councilors Larry Langford and John Katapodis. It also included Frank Parsons, an archconservative attorney who ultimately faced Arrington in a runoff for the mayor’s seat.
In the primary, voter turnout topped 55 percent overall; among black voters, the figure was 63 percent. In the runoff, which Arrington won by just over 2,000 votes — out of nearly 88,000 cast — turnout jumped to nearly 63 percent overall, with more than 71 percent of black voters going to the polls. No matter what your interest in the outcome, it was well nigh ridiculous to assert that the people of Birmingham had not spoken.
Let’s compare that to Birmingham’s most recent municipal election, in 2013. In that election — with the mayor’s office, nine city council seats and nine seats on the Birmingham Board of Education to be decided — the citywide turnout was just over 21 percent, meaning that only about 27,000 voters (27,201, to be exact) could be bothered to participate in determining the leadership and direction of their city for the following four years. In the runoff elections held six weeks later, the turnout fell short of nine percent.
Granted, incumbent Mayor William Bell had only token opposition and won the primary outright, thus depriving the runoff ballot of a headline attraction. In fact, when I wrote a column taking the city’s voters to task for their collective lack of interest in either the primary or the runoff, I received numerous responses that cited the absence of a competitive mayoral race as the key factor. The most incisive remarks, however, came from Darrell O’Quinn, president of the city’s Crestwood North neighborhood.
In addition to what the poor turnout says about Birmingham’s citizenry in general, O’Quinn wrote, we’ve also somehow failed to make the connection between the act of casting a vote and how that simple task demonstrates pride in our respective neighborhoods. A vote says, “I care,” and a failure to vote says the opposite. Logic would have me believe that elected officials take note of where votes come from and act accordingly.
Still, fair is fair, and not wishing to issue a blanket condemnation of my fellow citizens for not voting in an election that honestly offered very little in the way of excitement, I suggest we take a look at the last hotly contested mayoral race. That was in 2009, a special election to fill the mayor’s seat following the conviction of Mayor Larry Langford on federal corruption charges (the primary was held in December 2009, and the subsequent runoff in January 2010).
Attorney Patrick Cooper led the primary, in which turnout was a fairly dismal 26 percent. That changed six weeks later, when William Bell — who at that time was serving on the Jefferson County Commission — reversed the primary result, claiming the mayor’s office in a runoff in which turnout jumped to 41 percent. On the face of it, the latter number was fairly encouraging in terms of voter engagement, though a far cry from the 63 percent who had trekked to the polls in 1979 — as was the 47,000 total votes in the Bell-Cooper race from the 88,000 who participated in choosing between Arrington and Parsons.
So what’s my intent in dredging up all of this history? More than anything else, it is to follow up on my column in this space last week, in which, in the context of writing about the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plans to move ahead with a controversial rebuild of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham, I ventured the notion that ultimate responsibility for the things that befall Birmingham lies with us, the citzens of the city.
As citizens, we have every right to complain about the decisions made — or not made — and the actions taken — or not taken — by our elected officials. But Darrell O’Quinn was right: Elected officials do take note of how many people vote, and where those votes come from.
That’s why, to pick a timely example, eight of the nine members of the Birmingham City Council — led, if I may use that term loosely, by its president, Johnathan Austin — didn’t think twice about their vote on August 4 to more than triple the annual compensation for council members. Having won their current term in an election in which roughly four out of every five voters stayed home — to carry this a bit further, turnout in the 2009 council election was even worse, coming in at 15 percent — the city council feels no collective sense of accountability for that decision, or any of the others they make.
That the council’s salary increase doesn’t kick in until after the next elections, in 2017, is beside the point. So is the idea — with which I am in general agreement, with qualifications that space does not allow me to enumerate in this particular column — that increasing councilors’ compensation will attract a better field of candidates for those positions.
The real point is that if people do not vote, politicians are not compelled to provide good government. We can only demand from the system what we put into it, and to the extent that we put little or nothing into it, our right to complain — and, in fact, the veracity of our complaints — is diminished.
This should be on our minds as the next city elections begin to loom larger. To anyone who is paying adequate attention to the goings-on at City Hall, 2017 is shaping up to be another pivotal election in Birmingham history. We are faced as never before with both the opportunity for unprecedented success and — if we make the wrong choices, or allow them to be made for us by failing to engage ourselves wholeheartedly in the process of choosing those who would lead us into the future — the specter of failing, once again, to fulfill the rich potential that is ours.
We have met the enemy, and he is us, said the legendary cartoon character Pogo. In Birmingham, of all places, we should be aware of the implications of that statement, and act accordingly. In Birmingham, of all places, we should be aware of the transformation that can take place when people take their destiny into their own hands, and vote.