Alone in the voting booth, Ben Harris reached the bottom of his ballot and encountered a problem that puzzled a great many voters this Election Day:
Whom to pick for the Wake County Soil and Water board of supervisors?
Luckily for Harris, a 35-year-old graphic designer, this obscure but noble office provides a write-in option – an escape hatch for voters unfamiliar with politics of dirt and H2O.
So Harris scratched out his choice: Bentist Danger McGillicutty.
“Danger is my middle name,” he explained. “I kind of use McGillicutty as a standard joke name. There goes Speedy McGillicutty!”
More than any other race, the soil and water board inspires last-minute creativity at the polls. In 2010, the Wake soil and water board collected nearly all the write-in candidates on the entire ballot. In that contest, Mickey Mouse edged out Barack Obama by two votes, beating him 7 to 5.
The names of this year’s faux nominees are still sealed, unavailable for public viewing until next week. But judging from Twitter posts, it’s a banner year for fictional soil delegates statewide.
Pro-wrestler and Carolina Hurricanes noisemaker Ric Flair got one man’s vote in Martin County.
Ricky Meeks, a perennial candidate and widely admired curiosity in Wilmington who operates the scoreboard at UNC-Wilmington softball games, earned at least one nod.
In Wake County, voters chose 3,099 write-in candidates for soil and water, about half the votes tallied for fourth-place finisher Jose Fraser.
At one polling place, J.B. Flaherty Park in Wake Forest, write-ins represented 2.89 percent of the votes for the whole slew of soil and water candidates – highest in the county.
Why this office?
What about the soil and water conservation board encourages this kind of silliness?
Elections Director Cherie Poucher explained.
“Because there’s a line there,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have any idea about soil and water.”
Write-in voters insist they mean no disrespect for the job or its office-holders, notably Jenna Wadsworth, who won re-election in a landslide Tuesday night, and who sported a cowboy hat in her News & Observer photo.
“It’s probably one of the most important offices,” said Harris, backer of McGillicutty. “Conservation is really important. But there’s no advertising behind it. We never hear about these candidates. I’m definitely not informed enough to make a decision.”
For the record, the board of supervisors helps landowners to manage water, soil, plants wildlife and other natural resources within Wake County, offering both technical help and financial resources through state and federal programs.
But its undoubted importance aside, voters – myself included – remain mystified over why this is an elected office. I’m sure those in the know soil and water-wise will hand me an inbox full of reasons, but to be honest, the idea makes as much sense to me as an elected dog catcher. Am I really qualified to judge these candidates any more than, say, the Board of Trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill?
Poucher explained that all nonpartisan races have a write-in option. To get a write-in on the ballot for a partisan race, you’ve got to get a petition signed.
For the soil and water race, she’ll write up a spreadsheet with every candidate on it, no matter how kooky. But only those who win five votes or more will make the official canvass, earning a spot on history’s shelf.
I know it’s early. But I’m backing Obama for soil and water in 2018. I’m betting he’ll find the change refreshing.