Tallying the Results of CityVote

The official version: It didn't really happen. Don't tell that to the crowd gathered on election night last week inside Angelico's Cafe in New Britain, CT. They knew it happened. Because they were tallying the results. Why they were doing that in a restaurant speaks volumes about why it might not have happened, and why national Republican and Democratic Party leaders convinced the general public and mainstream media that it never happened. The Angelico's crowd was tallying paper ballots from a non-binding presidential preference poll called CityVote. The idea was, for the first time in a generation, to give urban voters a say in which candidates survive the essential early winnowing-out process of candidates in presidential primaries. It took place in 17 cities across the country, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Spokane, Tucson, Boulder, and New Britain, CT. It could have happened elsewhere in the country, such as in Newark and Boston and Baltimore. Organizers tried to conduct CityVote elections in those places. Government officials-some Democrats, some Republicans-stopped them. In Newark, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's administration convinced a court that under state election laws the balloting would be illegal. In Boston and Baltimore, Democratic and Republican legislators refused to modify restrictive state laws to allow the balloting to take place. In Washington state, the state Democratic Party went to court to block the balloting in three cities. (In this case, the Democrats lost.) National Democratic Chairman Don Fowler wrote to mayors of Democratic cities holding CityVote urging them to squash it. National Republican and Democratic presidential candidates boycotted a planned Walter Cronkite-moderated debate on urban issues. But CityVote happened. In New Britain, organizers, led by an independent travel agent named Kal London, persisted. They drew up their own paper ballots. They got a printer to print them for free. Volunteers from two local schools helped run it and count the ballots. They stood far enough from the polls to avoid running into state election-law violations. They stayed close enough to the polls to reach more than 2,000 voters-people motivated to go to the polls in municipal elections, the kind of voters who reflect presidential primary voters. According to media pundits and party officials, CityVote was a failure because it was in only 17 cities and wasn't run by official parties. In fact, according to national CityVote spokesman Mike Kaspar, CityVote drew 220,000 voters across the country-more than 10 times as many as voted in Iowa's Republican straw poll that was front-page news across the country. And unlike in that straw poll, these voters didn't have to pay for the right to vote. Nor were they shipped to the polls from out-of-state by a specific candidate's campaign. Florida Republicans have another straw poll coming up that's being taken seriously by the mainstream. That one is expected to draw 3,500 voters, and, again, they are delegates picked by the party to vote. "The dirty little secret in American politics today is that the candidates do not want to go the cities and talk about complex issues. They want to go to happy places and give sound bites," Kaspar says. The CityVote controversy also reveals, he says, that Democrats and Republican alike are "afraid to open up the political process." Ironically, the results were nothing for Democrats to fear. The national Democrats apparently feared that CityVote could only prove an embarrassment to them--with Bill Clinton doing poorly in what's supposed to be his home turf, the cities. In fact, Clinton cleaned up, with 43.7 percent of the vote in a field of 21 announced and potential candidates. That was more than twice as much as anyone else, including Colin Powell, who had only 18.2 percent of the vote. (The election was a day before Powell announced he won't run for president.) And Clinton did so well in an election in which close to half the voters were Republican. The people with the most to gain-little-known Republicans and potential third-party candidates-all did poorly. Jesse Jackson, who soared in the cities in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, received a mere 2 percent. Ross Perot got 3.6 percent, Lowell Weicker, 0.5 percent. The bad news was for Republicans. Bob Dole did best among current candidates-with 11.9 percent of the vote.Results were pretty much the same in Connecticut, with Clinton doing even better. He beat Dole percentage-wise by a margin of six to one, Powell about four to one.State Democratic Chairman Ed Marcus says state Democrats never opposed the concept of CityVote. "Everyone was concerned about the mechanical way it was conducted," he says. "As it turns out, it seems to have worked very well in the state." Especially for his side.

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