As some of you know, I was involved in the election just passed as a supporter of my partner, Michele Berger, for a seat on the Pittsboro Town Board of Commissioners. Though my mother raised me on a steady diet of partisan politics, I never got involved until I saw something I wanted to protect: the unique treasure that is Pittsboro. An old saying had been rattling around in my head for a long time: the world is run by those who show up. I figured it was time for me to stand up and be counted on to preserve and nurture something worth saving.
As a boy, I witnessed post-war sprawl devour the paradise of southern California. I sat in traffic jams and breathed air sometimes so foul it hurt to breathe. So, when fate brought my Michele and I here, I was delighted to be in a community where the air was clean, where a traffic jam meant a few cars slowing through the roundabout downtown, and where I could meet the farmers who grew my food.. I was also pleased to meet people who thought Pittsboro had the opportunity to emerge as a prosperous, self-sustaining town. But I was also aware of developers outside Chatham County who saw dollar signs as they gazed greedily upon vast tracts of vacant land and a vulnerable town decimated by corporate pressures that took their jobs to distant shores.
So, with a small group of friends, I walked the streets of Pittsboro to share our vision of a place that could bootstrap its own prosperity, a town that could cooperate with others to plan for our future common infrastructure needs, a town strong enough, smart enough and courageous enough to resist outside pressures and forge its own identity. We held rallies and threw parties. We met in homes, appeared at community events, churches and any place we could to share our vision of Pittsboro’s future. From late summer to early autumn we reasoned with our friends and neighbors and declared our message of prosperity by Pittsboro for Pittsboro.
For the most part, our message was well received. As in any contest we had our competition; decent people with a different take on what should be done for Pittsboro. We met the enthusiastic, the empathetic and the apathetic. I remember a middle-aged man on Small St. one day who told me, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna change.” Despite my protests, he persisted with his mantra. When it came time for a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, our opponents didn’t show up. We felt that the whole community had been stood up; denied the chance to hear a frank contrast of views between competitors. But it was a sly trick they pulled on us. I guess your views can’t be criticized if you don’t let the voters know what they are.
Finally, November 6, rolled around. Throughout the day we heard reports from our supporters that made us realize that there was no small amount of confusion at the polls that day. We began to suspect that voter irregularities were occurring. At the end of the night Michele was down by a handful of votes in an apparently flawed election.
Michele asked for a recount the next day.
In the week between the election and the recount, my capable friends and I scoured the rolls comparing voter addresses with the type of ballots they received. At the recount, Michele pulled within three votes of the nearest competition. As we completed our investigation of voter irregularities, we and the Chatham County Board of Elections discovered fourteen county voters who received Pittsboro municipal ballots and three Pittsboro voters who were denied their right to a municipal ballot. Seventeen irregularities occurred; almost six times the amount of votes that could have changed the outcome of the election.
I filed a protest of the election which was upheld by our local board and the state board despite our opponent’s opposition to our right to a fair election. The system worked.– Michele Berger was granted a special runoff election to take place in mid-March.
Looking back, it occurs to me that democracy is hard work. Perhaps that’s why so many shy away from “getting involved.” I think it was the French philosopher Voltaire who said, “People get the government they deserve.” Only 37% of the electorate showed up to the polls last November. Our apathy won’t save Pittsboro from becoming the sprawl-cursed twin of southern California. Vigilance and work do change things. If we think Pittsboro will be able to chart a sustainable, independent future, free of outside development pressures, it’s going to take a lot more of us to care and vote.