Stanislaus County voters face some big decisions at the polls Tuesday, but it's unlikely that more than a third of them will cast ballots.
Modesto's City Council election is a historic one. It will be the first in which voters choose representatives for geographic districts.
The Modesto Irrigation District features a hard-fought fight, with challenger Glen Wild seeking to unseat lightning-rod board member Mike Serpa.
And the Modesto City Schools Board of Education campaign drew nine candidate for four seats. Whoever wins will face difficult budget cuts in the year ahead.
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Recent history suggests about one-third of registered voters cast ballots in elections containing only local races. By Thursday, Clerk-Recorder Lee Lundrigan had nearly 25,000 absentee ballots among the 209,110 Stanislaus County residents who are eligible to vote in this election.
Without the excitement of a national race, off-year elections typically are known for their low turnout, said Michael Burtch, chairman of the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee.
In the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain last November, 70 percent of registered county voters cast their ballots. But Burtch said the Tuesday election is important, because those elected to school boards and city councils can affect peoples' lives in direct and meaningful ways.
"We're dealing with roads and schools and potholes and ways to encourage more business," Burtch said. "These are things that should have meaning to us, but, sadly, they don't."
Those who do vote will have a say in some dynamic races.
One of those is likely to be for the MID's central Modesto director's seat, where Wild is vying against one-term incumbent Serpa, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini said.
Many homes in that district have yard signs, and residents have been bombarded with mailers for both candidates.
DeMartini called Serpa a good campaigner but that he frequently clashes with other board members. He was reprimanded in 2007 for his treatment of board secretary Pat Mills after she refused to give him after-hours access to the board office.
"There are a lot of accusations and hard feelings there," DeMartini said. "I can't think of any other board that has that kind of controversy internally anywhere in the county."
DeMartini doesn't believe the Modesto City Council races will be close, but he hopes for decent voter turnout in the council's District 2, an area south of the Tuolumne River and west of Highway 99 plagued by poverty and crime.
The area has about 10,000 registered voters.
The perception that it has been underserved in local politics was one of the driving forces in Modesto's push to district elections two years ago.
"Now they have a chance to have somebody on their side," DeMartini said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.