Callaghan: Maybe voters too tired to be angry

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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The opposite of anger isn’t always happiness. Still, some will read into the Nov. 8 election results that voters are no longer angry.

Certainly there was little in our partial results to allow pundits to declare a broad theme to voting that was mostly a collection of very local elections. No bums were thrown out, no tax revolts were waged, no anti-government messages were delivered.

Of course, little in the statewide ballot measures invited voters to send messages about the cost or size of government.

But pundits risk expulsion from the Pundits Guild and Auxiliary if they declare there is no theme. So we scramble for meaning in the absence of meaning and we end up with something like this: The message voters just sent is that they aren’t angry anymore, which will come as a relief to those in government who have felt assailed for three years.

That may be comforting, though risky. A confusing tolling initiative was hardly a candidate for an anger referendum. Some tax measures passed, but some failed across the state, suggesting that for the right cause voters are willing to pony up.

A key to passage of private liquor sales after decades of failure was that it held harmless state and local governments from more revenue cuts. Or maybe we all just needed better access to a stiff drink.

But even if this is the first post-anger election of the 21st century, there’s an even-bigger risk in extrapolating that if voters aren’t angry they must be happy.

Such risk doesn’t mean many won’t grasp for that conclusion. Incumbents who win re-election even against weak opposition will see mandates. State transportation officials who have seen Tim Eyman’s tolling initiative rejected by voters feel vindicated. Even liquor bureaucrats can decide not to take Initiative 1183’s huge success personally, blaming it on Costco’s wholesale assault on our TVs.

But what if voters aren’t satisfied, just tired? Three years is a long time to stay angry, even for my Irish relatives. It leads only to ulcers, hypertension and dyspepsia.

Pendulum can still swing

Anyone who says he or she knows where voters are headed next is probably trying out for cable news. Because, just as few of us have ever gone through an economy like this one, few of us also have gone through a political period like this one.

So it’s foolish to decide that the pendulum is swinging from anger toward contentment. It could instead be defying political physics by hovering in the middle, just as likely to swing back toward seething anger as toward bliss. Especially in this economy. Especially in this political climate.

Each day brings another demand that Washington state’s election laws be changed yet again. If we required mailed ballots to arrive at the auditors’ offices by Election Day and not just be postmarked by then, we’d finish the process much earlier.

They won’t mention that this “problem” was caused by their last reform — the move from a system with adequate poll voting opportunities and liberal vote-by-mail options. So the reform that was sold as a boon to voter convenience would be re-reformed in a way to inconvenience voters. That is, not only do we have to figure out how to fold ballots and stuff them into the correct envelope, not only must we put a stamp on it and either mail it or drive it to a drop box, we also would be responsible for guessing the delivery schedule of the U.S. Postal Service.

Give us a rest from reform. With most numbers released before 8:30 p.m., vote-by-mail has wrung all of the excitement out of election night. At least allow us the muted tension of daily — and seemingly unending — updated vote counts.