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Why don’t people vote?

by Eric Ginsburg

(llustration by Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera. www.cabreracreative.com)

With campaign season for the Greensboro City Council election underway, organizations and candidates throughout the city are gearing up to register, educate and mobilize voters. Some candidates — particularly incumbents — know they have a base they can count on, while other aspirants hope to win with the support of people who don’t normally vote.

One analysis of the 2009 election is that incumbent Mayor Yvonne Johnson lost her re-election bid to current Mayor Bill Knight because her base did not show at the voting booth, while Knight was able to tap into ideological discontent and a burgeoning tea party movement.

Voter turnout in local elections is abysmally low, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why so many people abstain. Despite every attempt to register and turn out voters over the past few years, the numbers are irrefutable: Most people do not vote in local elections. The reasons nonvoters cite vary greatly and range from simply forgetting to purposeful abstinence. Figuring out why people opt out is complicated by the fact that many nonvoters don’t want to talk about it, and even when some do, they want to do so under the condition of anonymity.

BY THE NUMBERS

More than 80 percent of registered voters didn’t vote in the last general election for city council, and while the turnout was higher in 2007, it was markedly lower in 2005. Those numbers look good when compared to turnout during the primaries a month earlier, but they don’t reflect the number of eligible residents who aren’t even registered to vote in the first place.

In numerous precincts during the last city council election, fewer than 10 percent of registered voters participated. Low voter turnout isn’t contained to one geographic area or district, though a few precincts immediately east of downtown in District 2 have some of the worst turnout rates, including Bethel AME Church precinct G67 with 4.73 percent and Aycock Middle School precinct G01 with 9.32 percent.

The percentage of eligible voters who participated in the 2009 election was lower than in 2007, but the actual number of ballots cast increased.

The lower percentages are partly due to the significant increase in voter registration done around the 2008 presidential campaign. In fact, some of the precincts with the lowest participation rates in 2009 were the areas where the most new registration happened in 2008.

From 2007 to 2008 the new registration rate for the county went up nearly 27 percent from 13,697 to 50,846, but dropped significantly the following year to 9,147. Despite a large influx of new registered voters, participation in city council elections only grew by 1,400 ballots cast from 2007 to 2009.

PRIORITIZATION

For many people, voting is not a top priority. Residents said they don’t think their votes have impact, said they were busy with work and other responsibilities, or that local politics ignore issues they find important.

“If I’m going to take off work it’s going to be [to do] something better [than voting],” said Hannah Dodd. “It’s kind of like a waste of time.”

Dodd is a 22-year old kitchen manager, but used to ride horses professionally. She lives in District 5 but isn’t registered to vote and said she can’t relate to politicians, but could be convinced to vote on specific issues.

“[Politicians] aren’t like normal people,” she said. “If they were going to legalize marijuana or put a cap on gas taxes I would vote for that.”

Brian Kalstrup also said he would vote in local elections if issues that were important to him were being debated.

“If someone was very topical in their ads like gay marriage or something very specific I might get my butt off the couch and go,” he said. “It’s a matter of thinking it actually matters and believing it will be easy [to vote].”

Kalstrup, who graduated from UNCG in 2009, is still registered in Greensboro because he hasn’t updated his registration since moving to High Point, where he works for his dad’s veneer sales company. Kalstrup and District 3 resident Liz Vernon agreed that a significant factor is convenience.

“A lot of it is what’s made available to you,” said Vernon, a 27-year old Guilford College graduate. “My [work] schedule is made three months at a time. I try not to ask off for too many days [because] I live paycheck to paycheck.”

The universities

Three college campuses boast their own polling places, as well as some of the worst participation rates. UNCG, with roughly 1 percent turnout, was the lowest in the city. NC A&T University followed close by with just over 4 percent, while Greensboro College saw nearly 9.5 percent of registered voters show up.

Yet the numbers aren’t as straightforward as they appear for a few reasons. Residents living close to the campuses, who may or may not be students, vote at the campus precincts, particularly at Greensboro College. In addition, the number of registered voters isn’t entirely accurate, because if students move and don’t change their registration they are still counted, bringing the turnout percentage down.

A&T and UNCG also saw significantly higher new registration rates in 2008 than any other precincts, which may have contributed to low turnout percentages the following year.

Regardless, only 40 people voted in the general election in 2009 at the UNCG polling place, and 126 at A&T. In the G67 precinct abutting A&T’s campus, where many students live, less than 5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Daniel Sharp, who lives in the Bethel AME precinct next to the university, is a student at A&T whose sentiments are echoed throughout the city’s colleges. He voted in the last presidential election, but has never voted in a local race.

“I don’t really know anything about the local government here,” Sharp said. “If I had more time I’d do my research and vote for local stuff, too.”

Decidedly against it

Some nonvoters reject electoral reform all together and aren’t even registered. One resident, who didn’t want to give his name, said neither he nor his 82-year-old father had ever voted, and that they never planned to.

“Politicians are just for themselves,” he said. “They’re a bunch of liars.”

It’s impossible to say how many people purposefully don’t vote because of their stance on politicians or electoral reform, but he certainly isn’t alone.

“I don’t think that it makes a difference at all and all politicians are sh*t,” said Greensboro native Hilary Flint, who lives in District 3. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a politician that I agree with or trust.”

Carli Cox, a doula who moved to Greensboro two years ago and lives in District 1, doesn’t vote because she’s an anarchist and rejects voting as reform.

“I don’t trust the state for anything,” Cox said. “People should take the agency to make the change they want to see. The whole system needs to change. Voting seems to me like settling for less.”

Tim Hopkins agreed, saying people who don’t vote aren’t necessarily apathetic, but that many are alienated by the entire process. Hopkins, a distributor of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s newspaper and painter by trade, said he voted for the Socialist Workers Party in 1968 and another time for a friend.

“I came to see a lot more clearly that we don’t live in a democracy,” Hopkins said. “Voting is one of the illusions where they make you think that you’re really choosing. It’s representatives of the class that exploits everybody else that you’re voting for.”

An A&T professor, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears for his job, also referred to voting as an illusion, and said that people of African descent — like him — are an internal colony in the United States.

“It’s not the president that’s the problem, it’s the office of the president that’s the problem,” he said. “If you wanted to talk about real change it would involve completely reordering society; it wouldn’t be minor adjustments on the current colonial system.”

The unexpected nonvoter

Some people never plan to vote at all while others ignore local elections, but with participation rates so low, it’s impossible to create a profile of the nonvoter. Assumptions that some hold about nonvoters tending to come from a lower-income, less-educated background and are more likely to be young or people of color were not substantiated by interviewees. While turnout seems to be lower amongst younger eligible residents and that registered white voters do turn out more, some people who aren’t voting break the mold.

“If as citizens we are not willing to take a few moments to learn about candidates and vote in a local election, then we are our own worst enemy,” said April Harris, director of Action Greensboro who admits she didn’t vote in 2010. “If I’ve missed a vote I probably just plain forgot.”

A&T Chancellor Harold Martin and Elon Law School Dean George Johnson both missed the primary vote for the 2009 city council campaign, and so did William Crowther, the chair of the political science department at UNCG. Greensboro Chamber of Commerce president Deborah Hooper didn’t vote in the primary or the general election.

None could be reached for comment. Aaron Fetrow, the dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Guilford College, said he rarely votes in local elections. In fact, he hasn’t voted since 2008.

“Part of it is this consumerist problem of wanting to be spoon-fed information,” said Fetrow, who lives in District 4. “Party affiliation doesn’t always give you the full picture.”

Fetrow said he would vote on specific issues, like coliseum renovations, or for people he knew like Jeff Thigpen, but that his lack of knowledge about most issues meant that even when he does go to the polls, he skips over many of the items.

Barriers to voting

Multiple people said their lack of knowledge about elections kept them from participating, whether they didn’t know there was a vote or felt they lacked the information to make an informed decision.

Erin Fowler, who recently moved to District 1 from Charlotte, has been frustrated in her search to understand candidates’ platforms. She hasn’t always been a voter, but now that she’s a mother, she is more inclined to vote. On top of that, her anger over the possible reopening of the White Street Landfill, the construction of the new jail and council’s disrespect towards speakers from the floor will drive her to the polls.

“Coming into a new town it’s hard to figure out the local politics if you’re not connected,” Fowler said. “There’s not a sense of responsibility for local politics.”

Some voters likely don’t even know there is an election. In 2010, the Guilford County board of elections published the first election notice in Que Pasa, a Spanish-language newspaper. When residents show up to vote there are instructions available in Spanish and English too, but no other languages are available.

As elections Deputy Director Charlie Collicutt pointed out, voter registration and outreach is a legally mandated responsibility of the board of elections in states like Georgia but not North Carolina, leaving the responsibility up to civic organizations and the candidates themselves.

Collicutt pointed out that voter turnout was particularly low in 2005 when a number of seats were uncontested. If an election isn’t competitive, he said, residents are less likely to see the importance of participating.

This year he predicted a slight increase in turnout, due in part to a field of four mayoral candidates and other competitive council races, though districts 1 and 3 currently have one candidate apiece.

But despite any barriers that exist, people manage to vote at much higher rates in national elections than local ones, though Collicutt says the resources they dedicate to both are similar. And, he emphasized, if voters have questions or problems they shouldn’t hesitate to contact the board of elections for help.

Many potential voters, like Shaun Murray, are on the edge.

“It’s not like I have voter apathy or anything,” said 20-year old Murray, who lives in the Bethel AME precinct. “If my parents went to vote I’d probably go with them, or my friends.”

Vanessa Gray lives nearby in the precinct and said she only votes in the presidential election, but that she isn’t opposed to voting locally.

“The main reason [I don’t vote locally] is just that I don’t pay enough attention,” Gray said.

If candidates and organizations working to mobilize the vote like Democracy at Home or Face to Face can reach residents like Gray, Murray or Sharp, the election results could change. Nobody will know until the votes are counted after the Oct. 11 primary and the general election on Nov. 8.

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