In 1998, I ran for alderman in my town of Rock Hill, Mo. Surprised the heck out of myself, because it’s not really something I ever imagined I’d do. But our neighborhood had had some issues with the city government, and although the particular issues were mostly cleared up, the process had exposed some flaws in the leadership of the city. I was actually somewhat familiar with how city government works, having covered numerous municipal meetings as a stringer for the Webster-Kirkwood Times and the Suburban Journals. So when filing opened for the April aldermanic election and none of my neighbors seemed particularly interested in running, I decided to throw my hat in.
I had my own ideas about running for local office: I worked hard to write a create a good, well-written campaign brochure, and then walked the ward, knocking on every door and introducing myself to as many people as possible. In the course of the early spring, I made it to every house in the ward.
My opponent — the incumbent alderman — also had a brochure, but didn’t seem to be doing as much walking as I was. And, as someone who basically writes for a living, I was confident that my brochure was much stronger than his. At the time, I was under the impression that the more intelligent candidate should win a given election. (Unfortunately, that isn’t always the way it works; see Gore, Al or Kerry, John.)
Come election day, I was pretty confident. I wore a suit and worked our ward’s one polling place — Steger Middle School — all day, handing out more brochures, reintroducing myself, hoping to swing a last-minute vote or two my way. Early in the day, I would say things were going well; a lot more people were coming and talking to me and giving me encouragement than were talking to my opponent. By late afternoon though, there seemed to be a tidal shift. My opponent, who had been in office for eight or 10 years, at least, was putting his machine to work. He had a cell phone, and was calling his friends he hadn’t seen yet during the day and arranging for rides for people to get to the poll. I didn’t even own a cell phone in 1998. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people were there with both of us, but his numbers were approaching or even exceeding mine.
In Missouri, the polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Thirteen hours is a long time to stand outside a polling place. I had a few good friends who spelled me for a while during the day, and I wouldn’t have made it through without them. Typically there’s a rush of activity and confusion when the school lets out, and then another rush beginning about 5 p.m. when people get off work and vote on their way home. By about 6:30 things slow down, and by 6:50 you’re counting the seconds until you can get out of there and go home.
St. Louis County collects ballots from polling places twice a day. The first collection is at mid-day, and those votes are counted along with the absentee ballots, but those results aren’t released until after the polls close. Then the remainder of the ballots are collected and counted. We had a poll-watching party that evening, monitoring whatever local cable channel was covering the results. The initial count brought good news — I had a slight lead of a handful of votes — and the party was buoyed. But the second count was delayed well past 11 p.m. for some reason, and by the time the party broke up and we all went to bed, the final result still wasn’t known.
I woke up in the middle of the night and checked the cable channel, and the final tally was posted: I had received 156 votes, my opponent, 157.
One vote. There’s a kick in the gut for ya.
There followed weeks of second-guessing: what could I have done better? How could I have reached one more person? I had done a mailing to every address in the ward the week before the election; in the days after the vote, a dozen or so of those letters came back to me, misaddressed or with the addressee having moved … each one was a fresh reminder of how close I had come. My opponent attributed his victory to his 18-year-old daughter, who cast her first vote in that election. Sounds reasonable to me. My kids were too young to vote at the time.
In retrospect, I probably did everything I could, but just fell a little short.
Do not ever think that your vote doesn’t matter.
Postscript: With the assistance of a lawyer/neighbor/friend, we asked for a recount: the bizarre process actually involved suing my opponent. The recount was awarded, and a couple of weeks later we met at the county election board offices, where the computer punch cards were run through the machine again. This time, however, the tally gave my opponent a two-vote margin. Considering the trend, I didn’t ask them to count again.
Post-Postscript: The following year, I ran again, against the other incumbent. This time the breaks went my way, and I managed to win. But late in my first two-year term, the city became embroiled in a development controversy, and when I ran for re-election I was swept out of office along with all of the other aldermen who were up that year, and that was the end of my personal electoral adventures. Fun while it lasted, but there are plenty of other things to keep a person awake at night.