Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
What is it about an election year that brings out the weirdness?
After this month's elections, President Bush is likely to end up with a large memorial in San Francisco to visit during his retirement. It's neither "marble, nor customary," as ABC News pointed out, and in a liberal city where Bush is especially unpopular, the gesture is not meant to be flattering. The monument is the city's main sewage plant, which a ballot measure proposes to name after the 43rd president.
More than 12,000 San Franciscans signed petitions to put that question to city voters. Collecting so many signatures and printing up thousands of ballots in service of a practical joke may seem wasteful. But there is something about an election year that brings out the goofy side of voters, activists and politicians themselves.
In that regard, the current campaign season has at times seemed perfectly normal, and at others, completely bizarre. There has been the usual run of third-party candidates getting arrested for showing up at political events where they weren't welcome. And there were fanatics who changed their names simply to make a blunt point by appearing on the ballot. A noteworthy example this year: Marvin Richardson, who legally changed his name to Pro-Life for his U.S. Senate bid in Idaho.
When voters can't find a name they like on the ballot, they often write in their own -- or turn to Hollywood, fiction or cartoons for inspiration. This is particularly problematic for the state and local officials who administer elections. Before September's primary, election clerks in Vermont pleaded with voters not to write in joke names because of the time and effort it takes to sort out their validity. Mickey Mouse would be easy enough to spot, said Milton Town Clerk John Cushing. But Bart Simpson might be an actual person.
Write-ins were welcome in Dendron, Virginia, however. The town of nearly 300 residents had no other choice: It was left without any candidates for mayor or town council this spring when no one remembered to fill out the necessary paperwork. "It just escaped my attention," said Councilwoman Misti Furr.
Things were much more heated in Irving, Texas, this spring, where illegal immigrants became a contentious topic in municipal elections. Someone left a Chihuahua puppy on Mayor Herbert Gears' doorstep. Gears said that the breed "hopefully had no significance" but speculated that the incident might have been prompted by "all this craziness" surrounding the immigration issue's role in the election. His fears turned out to be unfounded. The miscreant was later revealed to be a postal carrier who was angry about the city's relaxed policies regarding dogs running around loose.
Sometimes it's the candidates themselves who need a leash. Former San Diego City Councilman John Hartley kept up his comeback campaign despite a recent arrest for indecent exposure. Rajesh Kumar Nayyar was similarly undaunted in his bid for a seat on the St. Lucie, Florida, county commission after being arrested for performing hair- and vein-removal without a license.
A half-dozen arrests were not enough to keep Andy Williams from campaigning for a seat on the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. Williams was arrested twice after winning the Republican primary in August, but vowed to press on despite what he saw as an attempt by establishment powers to keep him locked up through Election Day. "Even if I'm in jail, I'm still a viable candidate because there are no felonies I am convicted of," Williams pointed out in his own defense. Still, he acknowledged that it would be hard to win from behind bars. "I'm not concerned about my ability to be a candidate, but I am concerned with being able to campaign."
Despite the frustration and anger that visits so many voters and candidates in this highly partisan era, every once in a while something happens that reminds us of the serious nature of voting and the importance of democracy. This fall, Sarah Williams, a 101-year-old woman from Virginia, cast her first vote -- ever. Her granddaughter put a sticker on her trench coat. It read, "I made freedom count. I voted."
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