Is Jackson County truly blue?

One of the most striking recent political developments in our community has been the loss of Republican Party voter registration dominance in Jackson County.

Just four years ago, there were 10,000 more registered Republicans in our county than registered Democrats. This year, the registration advantage for Republicans had shrunk to about 2,000, or about 2 percent of the approximately 102,000 total registered voters.

As a result, this November, for the first time in nearly 50 years, (since JFK was elected President in 1960), Jackson County voters chose the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, over John McCain, the Republican. The final vote tally, recently certified by the county clerk, shows that Obama won Jackson County by a whopping 47 votes out of 101,047 total votes cast. Jackson County has quite literally turned blue.

That this razor-thin margin of victory was not limited to the presidential contest speaks volumes about the current political state of our county. In fact, in many local races, the winner prevailed by less than the total number of "undervotes," which is the number of voters who mailed in their ballots but skipped a particular race.

For example, last month, in the race for state representative for the 6th District, which basically covers Medford and which has been solidly Republican for well over a generation, incumbent Sal Esquivel won by 2,016 votes over Democratic challenger Lynn Howe. Yet, in that race, there were 2,338 undervotes — people who filled out a ballot but skipped the Esquivel-Howe race. In other words, the winner prevailed by less than the total number of undervotes. Now, that's what I call a close election.

Similarly, Jim Olney, a virtual political unknown who ran a low-profile campaign, lost his bid for county commissioner to incumbent and former county sheriff C.W. Smith by only 7,593 votes, in a race where there were 8,580 undervotes. This is a sign that had Olney been able to round up a few more undecided voters or had he built up a slightly bigger campaign war chest, he could very easily have won, against a Republican with perhaps the best name recognition among all local officeholders.

With the margin of victory in multiple local political races decided by less than the number of undervotes, even in a countywide race involving a political well-known like Smith, it can be fairly said that it was no accident and no fluke that a Democrat won the presidential race in our county. Jackson County is now quite simply up for grabs between the two main political parties, and the consequences for the future are dramatic.

What this means, for all good-hearted Democrats and liberals, is that you can make a difference. Every seat for every office in Jackson County is within our reach. Get out and support your candidate. Knock on a few doors. Make a financial or other contribution to help progressives get elected. You can make a difference, especially in a county where the undervotes are the difference between winning and losing.

By electing Democratic and other liberal candidates to political office at every level, believers in progressive politics can achieve things that we cherish most: universal education, universal health care, clean air and water, rational and uniquely Oregon land-use rules, respect for public spaces and public lands, an atmosphere of political and social tolerance and, above all else: peace.

A few years ago, I heard a right-wing fellow complain out loud during a county commissioners meeting that too many progressive causes were being proposed around here, and he specifically complained that "educated bastards" are taking over our county.

With just a little more hard work, we will do just that.

Condé Cox of Jacksonville is a retired attorney who has been active in clean air issues. He also writes columns about wine for several publications in the Northwest. His progressive commentary appears in the Mail Tribune on the first Sunday of the month.

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