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Voter participation ranks high in Hall
1st deadline to register to vote is Monday
In addition to renewing driver’s licenses, the Georgia Department of Driver Services on Aviation Boulevard in Gainesville allows motorists to register to vote. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

To our readers

Louis Brandeis, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once said, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen.”

That quote really resonated for us as we began planning a special yearlong project that starts today. This year, The Times hopes to educate our readers on the important role that citizens play in making our form of government work.

It’s an important responsibility we have, one that was given to us deliberately by the Founding Fathers. It is evident in the first three words of the Constitution.

“We The People.”

Unfortunately, some  Americans are disengaged from government. There’s a growing sense of frustration, even anger, at politicians. Many people stay home on Election Day, claiming their votes don’t matter.

We don’t believe that. Through our special series, we hope to show you that the role you play in our government still matters and, in fact, is the most important role.

By the end of our series, we hope you have become better informed and better engaged citizens of our community.

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Hall County's voters are more likely to vote on Election Day than those in the rest of Georgia.

The percentage of registered voters who make it to the polls here also outpaces participation rates nationwide.
It makes sense if you listen to the experts.

People with higher incomes and who have achieved higher levels of education are more likely to participate in the democratic process than those of lower socio-economic levels, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

"They tend to be more civicly aware, more engaged in the process and less daunted by the registration process," Gillespie said.

The median household income in Hall County, at $49,334 in 2009, putting it in the top 20 percent of counties statewide.

Registered voters in Hall number more than 90,000, about half the total population recorded in the 2010 census.

About 80,000 of them are considered active by the Hall County Elections Office, meaning in the last two election cycles they have made some sort of contact with the office, either by voting, signing a petition or changing their information.

"I do notice that Hall County voters are active," said Charlotte Sosebee, county elections supervisor.

Eighty percent of those active voters are white, 7 percent are black and 4 percent are Latino, according to statistics posted by the Secretary of State's Office.

Sosebee said the county's numbers of registered voters is growing so much that Hall may fall into a category with bigger counties like Forsyth and Richmond in how election rules apply.

Some of the most active voters in Hall are those who cast ballots at First United Methodist Church on Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville. The precinct is home to some 3,280 of Hall's registered voters; 72 percent of them showed up in 2010 when the ballot for governor included hometown candidate Nathan Deal, according to Secretary of State data.

Hall's voter participation outpaced statewide interest that day by about 4 percentage points.

Hundreds showed up to vote at The Springs Community Church in South Hall that day, about 58 percent of the residents registered to vote at that precinct.

Citizens age 18 or older can sign up to do their civic duty any number of ways, making the local elections office often a lonely place during nonelection periods.

Sosebee said "people get a little excited and want to come into the office" near an election time. But as Monday's deadline neared for those who wanted to register in time to vote in the March 6 Republican presidential primary, few people visited the office.

"Our doors are not swinging on hinges where it's just open-close the whole time," Sosebee said. "Hardly ever do we get walk-ins."

But it's not necessary to make a special trip to the county's Browns Bridge Road office to register. Federal law allows citizens to register when they carry out other government business. Forms are available in libraries and other government buildings.

Sosebee encourages people who want to register to cut out the middle man and do it at the elections office
"If you want to make a deposit at the bank, you should go to the bank," she said.

Motorists in any state can register when they get their driver's licenses renewed. And as Georgia's state offices catch up with the age of the Internet, prospective voters can access registration forms electronically via the Secretary of State's website, though they still must print them and mail them in.

Georgia voters serving overseas in the military can request an absentee ballot online.

Despite the Secretary of State's efforts to make it easier to register, Gillespie calls Georgia "one of the more draconian states" when it comes to ease of ballot access.

She cites the fact that the state requires registration a month in advance of an election, and the state's strict rules on voter registration drives. The Secretary of State's office touts those as measures to reduce fraud.

"Since voter registration in Georgia is much more regimented, you have to be in the know and you have to not be afraid to ask the right questions and figure out what to do," Gillespie said. "Sometimes, if people have not had good civics education, they don't even know where to begin."

Referring to a University of Maryland study, Gillespie said education at home may be an effective way to increase voter participation rates. It found that children who lived in homes where politics were discussed were more likely to participate in the civic process.

"If people sort of assume you pick it up by osmosis, you don't pick it up by osmosis," she said. "Somebody actually has to sit down and teach you."