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Where have all the voters gone? Local officials are puzzled
Hall County turnout has lagged in sales tax votes in recent years
Voter turnout was light Tuesday for the Hall County SPLOST vote. Only 6.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots, a low level of participation even for a sales tax vote.

Recent Hall County voter turnout

• 2015 SPLOST VII: 6.5 percent
• 2011 E-SPLOST IV: 8.3 percent
• 2009 SPLOST VI: 9.3 percent

Voter turnout seems to have bottomed out in Hall County.

Last week, just 6.5 percent of registered voters decided the fate of a 1 percent sales tax to fund countywide infrastructure projects.

In starker terms, only about 5,400 of 83,000 registered voters in a county of 187,745 cast ballots in the SPLOST VII referendum. The tax passed 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent.

Expectations for turnout were never high, but the level of apathy surprised local government officials and left them asking what can be done to increase participation in the electoral process.

“I’m really disappointed that we didn’t have a better turnout,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “That’s a low percentage. It is problematic.”

While turnout has been poor in recent SPLOST votes, this year proved to be even worse.

An E-SPLOST IV proposal to fund education was approved in 2011, with turnout at 8.3 percent. And in 2009, 9.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the SPLOST VI election.

There may be as many reasons why voters don’t go to the polls as there are solutions being offered to get them to the ballot box.

Turnout is typically higher in American presidential election years, “and that’s because people perceive that there’s a lot more at stake,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

In 2012, about 70 percent of registered voters in Hall County went to the polls. That number fell to 56.24 percent in the midterm elections this past November.

The fact that turnout rises dramatically when the White House is on the line is symptomatic, in some ways, of the nation’s polarized two-party system.

Former Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz said local constituents are often so focused on national issues and entrenched in party affiliation that his rule of thumb when campaigning is to direct 80 percent of funds and resources to the 20 percent of voters certain to cast ballots.

“To me, that’s a recipe for getting elected, but it’s not necessarily a recipe for engaging a broader base,” he said.

The focus on national issues comes at the detriment of local government, Lutz said.

“When you’re knocking on doors as a local candidate, you get a lot of questions about (national issues),” Lutz said, recalling a time when he was asked his opinion about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during a campaign stop in 2010.

National issues more tied to voters’ beliefs

Whereas local issues revolve around budgets, taxes and infrastructure like roads and sewers, national issues appeal to people’s beliefs and principles.

With this comes passion and intensity, qualities often lacking in votes on local referendums.

The project list for SPLOST VII, for example, was heavy on infrastructure projects, such as road improvements and upgrades to the emergency 911 system.

John Vardeman, who managed marketing for the Hall Progress 2015 committee, a group of business leaders who advocated for passage of SPLOST VII, said promoting projects that have a “quality of life” element to them, such as new parks or renovations to the Senior Life Center, were critical in drumming up interest.

“Supporters of those programs seemed to be more motivated about getting out the vote among their respective constituencies,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum said he believes that while voter registration rolls are growing, turnout is not keeping pace.

And March 17 proved to be a new low in Hall County.

“Some (voters) just don’t care, which is sad,” Mecum said.

Turnout was better overall in Flowery Branch, Oakwood and other precincts in South Hall. Most precincts reported turnout between 5 and 8 percent. The outliers on the high end, however, were offset by 2 to 4 percent turnout at many precincts.

And turnout was more sporadic at polling sites in Gainesville. At the Civic Center, for example, turnout was 13.8 percent. At the Brenau Downtown Center, turnout was 9.6 percent.

And at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center, turnout was 5.1 percent.

Required voting a tough sell in US

In some countries — Peru, for example — it is actually illegal not to vote. In the remote mountains and jungles of that South American country, residents dutifully participate in an electoral process that has seen its share of corruption.

Rural voters simply paint the name of the candidate they support on the side of their adobe homes, allowing vote counters to drive by and tally the results.

Access to the polls is a lot easier in the United States, of course, though barriers do exist that could turn off potential voters.

President Barack Obama addressed the issue of turnout last week, expressing support for mandatory voting, which could have a stronger impact in the short term than limiting campaign donations or other changes to restore trust in the system, he said.

And some studies report that compulsory voting does work. For example, turnout in national elections jumped 30 points, from about 64 percent to 94 percent, when Australia imposed such a law.

But mandatory voting is a tough sell. Freedom, after all, includes not just the right to vote, but also the right not to vote. Anything compulsory is a hard swallow for Americans.

And mandatory voting doesn’t address systemic issues in the electoral process that turn voters away.

“I wish there was a simple answer, but unfortunately the things that need to be done to increase turnout are pretty big issues,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to reform elections and voting.

Campaign finance reform, independent redistricting and stronger ethics and conflict of interest laws are just a few starting points for spurring greater voter turnout and participation in the electoral process, Perry added.

“People aren’t voting because they don’t trust their government,” Perry said. “Until we restore faith in the system, we will continue to see low numbers of people going to the polls.”

End result: Empty polls

“If you would have drove around the county last Tuesday, you would’ve had no idea there was an election,” Lutz said.

Disenfranchised voters are nothing new to American democracy. But their absence from the polls may not be a sign of apathy, but rather skepticism and cynicism.

Joe Randolph, owner of Randolph’s Barber Shop on Athens Street in Gainesville, said some African-Americans in Gainesville do not support sales tax initiatives like SPLOST VII because they believe low-income neighborhoods do not benefit.

“You don’t really see the benefits of SPLOST in this part of town,” he added.

So rather than vote for or against the tax, many of the city’s minority voters simply didn’t show up, a troublesome find when considering that sales taxes have a larger impact on low-income families, just as income taxes hit wealthier earners harder.

Mecum said that when it comes to ballot referendums, many residents simply assume it will either pass or fail and that their vote won’t make a difference one way or the other.

Dunagan said it appears the opposition simply stayed home. But this explanation was also given by supporters to explain the poor turnout.

“We can only guess as to why, but probably because a lot of SPLOST supporters simply assumed SPLOST would pass without their vote, just like it did six times before,” Vardeman said.

SPLOST votes often draw little interest

Taking SPLOST referendums for granted is unique to Georgia in some ways.

Bullock said there is a certain expectation among voters in Georgia that SPLOST will always be around. (Hall County voters did, however, reject a regional initiative in 2012 to fund transportation projects).

“In Florida, these SPLOSTS often get voted down,” he said, adding that Georgia voters are historically more comfortable supporting sales tax increases when they know specifically where the money will be directed.

“In our public presentations and social media efforts, we heard from several Hall County residents who were generally in favor of a local sales tax if they could trust the money would be spent efficiently and with integrity,” Vardeman said.

Georgia has long been a hotbed for the “FairTax” because of support from former U.S. Rep. John Linder, a Republican from Duluth, and libertarian radio host Neal Boortz.

So the idea of exchanging property and income taxes for higher sales, consumption and excise taxes “took hold more in Georgia than elsewhere,” Bullock said.

There’s also a belief among some voters that local government got exactly what they wanted.

“Many communities prefer to have very low turnout on their SPLOST votes,” Bullock said.

Knee-jerk reactions to tax increases and organized opposition are more likely during general election cycles, he added.

But the low turnout for SPLOST VII belies one key point: ballot referendums are the most direct form of democracy. Voting on a tax is like being a state lawmaker for the day.

And yet, even with this power and opportunity, voter motivation left something to be desired.

“Some opponents of the SPLOST VII conjectured that local government officials, the Chamber of Commerce and our Hall Progress committee desired a low voter turnout,” Vardeman said. “That could not be further from the truth. … We truly felt that the larger the vote, the greater likelihood that SPLOST would secure passage. Our fear all along was voter apathy and complacency.”

What more can be done?

Local government officials tried to drum up interest in the SPLOST VII vote.

Several public input meetings were held, a specific project list was drawn up and a citizens oversight committee was added.

Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee said county government also published notice of the referendum with local media and provided 21 days of early voting and 45 days for absentee voting to meet constituent needs.

Meanwhile, the Hall Progress 2015 Committee spent thousands of dollars in local print, radio and online advertisements.

But education and awareness can only do so much.

“Sometimes, you might put in something controversial just to get them fired up and get (voters) to the polls,” Mecum said.

One of the most commonly cited changes needed to boost turnout is to schedule SPLOST votes and similar referendums to coincide with the general election calendar.

It’s a change Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown identified.

“Some opponents insist SPLOST would have failed if it had been held back in November during the general election,” Vardeman said before dismissing this notion.

With SPLOST referendums passing in Habersham and Dawson counties last November, for example, Vardeman said that argument falls apart.

Poor turnout is certainly not unique to Hall County or Georgia.

Turnout in Habersham County last year was just 50.63 percent, and SPLOST passed 58 to 42 percent.

Meanwhile, turnout in Dawson County during last year’s general election was just 55.38 percent, and SPLOST passed 70 percent to 30 percent.

Turnout lags in cities and states across the country.

But some states are more proactive than others when it comes to addressing low turnout. Washington, Oregon and Colorado automatically mails ballots to eligible voters and do not operate in-person polling precincts.

Extending the number of early voting days could also grow turnout, but would also raise election costs.

Globally, Australia operates a ranked or preferential voting system.

If no candidate is the first choice of 50 percent of voters, then votes for candidates receiving less support are redistributed, producing a kind of “instant-runoff.”

It’s all an effort to make voting easier and provide varied representation.

But a large swath of registered voters will simply never be active, Mecum said, and that points to one final conclusion.

“As far as increasing voter turnout, it really lies on the responsibility of the voter,” Sosebee said.