The value of at large elections - December 2010/January 2011
Any way you look at it, folks who make their living in agriculture are a minority. We may be somewhat different than other minorities, but when it comes to votes, we don't have near enough to overturn our urban neighbors. In that vein, I'm going to offer some unsolicited advice to another minority in Wyoming.
Recently, the Native American population in Fremont County challenged the way that county selects its county commissioners. The challenge was based on the premise that the population should be segmented and allowed to elect their own representative. The current system of electing five members at large, it was argued, did not adequately provide for representation of their interests.
Let's think about this for a little bit. In any at large election, the five candidates who get the most votes get to serve. Many times, the difference between the last two and sometimes the top vote getter and the last vote getter is a fairly small number. Under that type of a scenario minorities who vote have a lot of power.
A politician running for office cannot afford to ignore that group who might make the difference between being elected or not. When Wyoming legislative races were based on at large districts, minorities, like agriculture and Native Americans, could not be ignored by those seeking the office. And since most politicians were never sure whether they would be the one who didn't get that last little amount of votes to get them elected in an at large district, they went to the ag community and asked them about their problems.
I remember going to Farm Bureau legislative meetings and seeing urban legislators in attendance listening to agriculture producers and asking questions. Because they wanted that agriculture vote they also continued to listen when they went to Cheyenne. And because the agricultural community got a chance to visit with these folks, they were more likely to keep in contact with them when they went to Cheyenne.
After moving away from the at large district elections, Farm Bureau meetings were not nearly as well attended by those from the urban areas. Because of this, many of the contacts that used to be made by the potential politician with agriculture voters went away.
So, as mentioned above, my unsolicited advice to those folks wanting to move away from at large elections, be careful what you ask for, you might get it.
It's better to be able to influence three or four or all five county commissioners than to elect one in my opinion. Instead of asking for a segmented election process, spend time working to get folks to vote. In an at large election, political candidates have to pay attention to small numbers who vote, but they don't have to pay attention to small numbers who don’t vote. If they don't vote, then it doesn't matter what kind of system you have, it's not going to help.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President