Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpEarly numbers on Arlington’s 2014 absentee voting are “abysmal,” I’m told by retired county Treasurer Frank O’Leary. Fewer than 7,000, or several hundred short of the number in gubernatorial election year 2013.

This weak showing, says Arlington’s astute reader of voter turnout tea-leaves, may not bode well for down-ballot Democratic candidate Alan Howze in his bid to unseat independent John Vihstadt, who’s served on the board just six months.

O’Leary, a voluble Irish Democrat who spent three decades running Arlington’s cash flow, greeted me in his central Arlington home so he could show off tables of local turnout numbers going back to 1948. Though O’Leary might like to embrace the retiree’s decluttered schedule, he has failed so far—when our meeting is done he’ll march to a civic association meeting aimed at blocking a perennial county proposal to improve his street’s sidewalks by shaving some yards.

When O’Leary ran for treasurer in 1983, he had already honed his statistical skills working on campaigns, among them John Glenn’s 1970 first unsuccessful Senate bid, where he developed his insights into turnout. By knocking on hundreds of doors before Labor Day, the Arlington Democrat went on to earn the title of “Landslide O’Leary” — winning by 89 votes.

The chief historical pattern in Arlington’s record of high turnout, says O’Leary, is a flip: From 1948 through 1972, Republican registered voters turned out more than Democrats most years. But beginning in 1984, Democrats came to the polls abundantly, doubling or tripling GOP voters’ showing during the past two decades. The reasons for the advantage, says O’Leary, include a ground game “Maxim gun”-like computer technology developed by Tom Whipple (now my fellow columnist).

There was also “a huge demographic shift” in the late ‘70s and ‘80s,” he added, as the overall population declined by 20,000, and many families with small children (many nonvoting) left.

By the 1990s, with the population back up, Arlington was “flooded with well-educated people who believe in voting,” O’Leary says. Add to that the 1993 Motor Voter Law that eased registration, and Democratic turnout dominated.

Arlington for the past 30 or so years has been reliably Democratic, with nearly 165,000 voters registered, perhaps 140,000 of them active. The county did intensify efforts to purge inactive voters from the rolls, which still contain “lots of dead wood,” he says. “This year, Jupiter eclipses Mars,” O’Leary proclaims, in that there’s a Senate and House race that will pull up turnout to possibly 85,000, or 61 percent (though not the 117,000-plus you get in a presidential year). He notes the typical dropoff of 10-15 percent of voters who check the box for Congress but skip the county and school board boxes. “I was optimistic in the spring for the Democrats, but I haven’t seen much spending by the Don Beyer campaign and no inherent excitement,” O’Leary said.

His bottom line: He can’t conceive of turnout falling below 70,000 (more than three times the 22,000 in the special election Vihstadt won). For Vihstadt to re-win his board seat, he would need nearly half that, at least 30,000, O’Leary said, a tall order. Despite the weak absentee vote that might harm Democrats, he calls a Vihstadt win “possible but not probable.”

Still, If Vihstadt falls short but mounts a solid showing, O’Leary added, that would set him up well to run in 2015.