When You Get Fired Up.
The weather is unseasonable right now. A warm snap makes the air balmy, the breeze still scented with the crispness of fall leaves. Though the ground is now crunchy with orange and brown, and leaves rattle across roadways, most trees still cling to a canopy full of color.
But November marches on regardless.
Yesterday was an “off-year election.” Across the country, people voted on ballot initiatives, state representatives, governors. Virginia’s entire state house was up for grabs. The governor of a place I called home for many years—Kentucky—was up for election.
And in Speedtrap, there was a ballot measure to change our fire district. Speedtrap has operated with its own Volunteer Fire Department for years.
For those of you unfamiliar with small town public safety, a Volunteer Fire Department is made up of trained neighbors who work in collaboration to provide public safety and services. Often there are annual fundraisers—bingo nights, fishfrys, and other assorted activities—to raise funds for the expensive equipment required to keep small communities safe.
A VFD in Missouri operates on a membership basis: you pay your dues for coverage. There was a law passed years ago that states that, if your house is on fire, member or no, the VFD shows up and fights that fire. However, afterwards, the VFD is allowed to send you a bill for their services.
Communities can opt to join the county fire district with a public vote, and, through a ballot initiative yesterday, Speedtrap did so.
Democracy in action.
The vote was not held within the Speedtrap city limits. Those invested in this change in policy had to drive to the county seat, to the county clerk annex building, to find the fluttering red, white, and blue “VOTE HERE” flags and the sign prohibiting electioneering within 25 feet of the door.
Once inside, the clerk’s staff, operating as election officials, were cheerful and delighted that people showed up to make their voices heard on something that, to them, must seem so minor. Why would it warrant the inconvenience?
A woman cheerfully handed me the affidavit to sign that I was voting in person for myself. She made small talk with the older gentleman behind me, also from Speedtrap, wearing a Nashville shirt. They discussed southern vacation spots and football briefly before we were each handed the ballot.
“Lots of folks coming yet?” I asked.
“A pretty steady trickle, wouldn’t you say?” the woman asked the man at the neighboring desk.
“Yeah, I’d say so. Mostly from Speedtrap.”
Another tiny town had an initiative up in the county. A sales tax. We were the only two issues in all of the county.
“People seem to care about this,” she noted. “Some folks have said that they think it’ll bring down their homeowner’s insurance,” said the woman with a cheerful grin.
“You know, I hadn’t thought of that,” said her neighbor.
I smiled to myself, certain that small talk and friendly gossip definitely did not count as electioneering.
A “steady trickle” could mean anything, I decided. But I went to the election results this morning.
For scale, anyone in the Speedtrap VFD district was eligible to vote: 895 souls. Of those, 131 cast ballots. It was the only item up for a vote. This is a smalltown issue people cared about.
(As a point of reference, the sales tax issue in the other town? Twenty-eight people turned out to vote.)
Fifteen percent voter turnout might not feel like passionate democracy. But it mattered to me. It mattered that 125 of my neighbors turned out to change the fire district and improve public safety. Because changing the fire district gives access to greater funding, newer equipment, and more resources generally. It removes stress from the VFD members’ lives, improving quality of life for their neighbors, and yes, probably saving folks money. But that was something they would know only if they had been paying attention.
Five folks voted against it, as was their right.
But with that little opposition, people still showed up. Contention normally drives people to the polls. Yet there was no organized opposition to this. Yards were not cluttered with signs expressing opinions. There were no heated op-eds in the local paper.
People still showed up.
I am proud of Speedtrap for this.
Politics is local, they say, and it doesn’t get much more local than who will come to your aid when you are in trouble.