insights on low voter turnout
Power to the people
The key to winning elections is selectively mobilizing key demographics to achieve advantage over an opponent. The job of a political consultant is to study demographics of party registration and race in a particular district, and figure out how to exploit the peculiarities of those demographics to the maximum advantage of the candidate. The name of the game is achieving a critical edge, so it’s hardly ever in a candidate’s interest to campaign in a way that is likely to maximize political participation across the board. In the spirit of making democracy a sport in which everybody gets a chance on the field, I offer political consulting services for the people free of charge.
My personal angle in this primary election is my involvement with the nonpartisan Guilford County Unity Effort, an ad hoc committee anchored by southeast Greensboro resident Sharon Hightower. In addition to organizing a candidate forum at Congregation Church of Christ in Greensboro on April 19, we’re talking about doing some canvassing to get out the vote in traditionally low-turnout precincts. Here’s my research methodology. I figure the 2008 election can be discounted. A black candidate at the top of the ticket and a historical high water mark for the Democratic Party skews the data for precincts with African- American and Democratic majorities. The 2009 municipal election in Greensboro was probably influenced by some of the Tea Party sentiment at the national level, but I’m going to wager that it’s a truer gauge.
College students are notoriously apathetic in local elections. The lowest turnout precinct by a long shot in Greensboro’s 2009 municipal election was G45, which encompasses UNCG, with a dismal 1 percent. Turnout in precinct G68, whose polling place is NC A&T Memorial Union Hall, plummeted from 56 percent with the outpouring of excitement surrounding the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to 4.2 percent for municipal elections the following year. With a high-profile Senate race at the top of the ballot, student turnout in this year’s election could fall somewhere between 2008 and 2009.
Crossroads of districting
Excluding the two major university areas, one of the lowest-turnout precincts in Greensboro last year was G64, a geographically vast precinct that straddles Interstate 40 east of the airport. The precinct leans Democratic and is majority white, though not overwhelmingly so. More than half of the voters in this precinct are effectively disenfranchised during the May 4 primary because of noncompetitive Democratic ballots. G64’s congressional representation is divided between District 6 and District 12, and its state House representation is carved up between districts 57 and 62 — all with Republican primaries. Its state Senate representation includes districts 26, 27 and 28. Only in 28 do Democrats have a choice — between Gladys Robinson and Evelyn Miller.
Who’s not voting
To target low-turnout precincts for getout-the-vote canvassing, I selected every one where turnout fell below 10 percent in last year’s municipal election. Geographically, the 13 low-turnout precincts are scattered every in the city except northwest Greensboro. They tend to be more disproportionately Democratic and unaffiliated. They are significantly more likely to have a disproportionately higher black population. Nine out of 13 boast a higher proportion of people of color who are neither black nor white than the city’s average, including Asians and American Indians.
The low turnout precincts tend to have a disproportionately high number of women who are registered voters, with the highest being 71.8 percent in G69, a precinct that serves the Bennett College area.
Disenfranchised by gerrymandering
Congressional and state legislative districts are typically drawn to favor the incumbent, so one or other party has a lopsided advantage in voter registration. The inevitable result is that incumbents rarely attract challengers from within their own party — this year may be something of an exception, with candidates taking on Democratic incumbents Alma Adams and Earl Jones respectively in House districts 58 and 60 — and candidates muster in the opposition party, but most voters have little stake in a primary contest in which they can’t even vote.
The most typical precinct
The registered voters in G49, a precinct wedged between West Wendover Avenue and West Market Street, are 57.9 percent Democratic and 53.3 white — which is pretty typical for the city as a whole. They’re represented by US Rep. Brad Miller in Congress, NC State Sen. Don Vaughan and NC House Rep. Pricey Harrison — all Democrats. There are no contested primaries in NC Senate District 27, and Miller and Harrison do not face challengers from within their own party. Only registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters have a reason to show up at the polls to express their preference in these races. Republicans and unaffiliateds requesting Republican ballots will get to choose between Dan Huffman, Frank Hurley, Bill Randall and Bernie Reeves for US House District 13, and between Jon Hardister and Wendell Sawyer for NC House District 57.
In G54, with its polling place at Rocky Knoll Baptist Church south of the Interstate 40-Business 65 split, voters in the majority party have a contested primary. Registered voters skew 75.3 percent Democrat and 73.8 percent black. They’re represented by US Rep. Mel Watt, NC Sen. Don Vaughan and NC House Rep. Earl Jones — again, all Democrats. Both Jones and his Democratic challenger, Marcus Brandon, are black, so there’s a better chance that the electorate will judge the candidates on their merits instead of by race. The 226 registered Republicans and 431 unaffiliated voters have the option of voting for Scott Cumbie, Greg Dority and William Gillenwater in the Republican primary for US House District 12.
Swing into spring
G65, which covers the southern half of Adams Farm, can be considered a true swing precinct. Neither party holds a majority in voter registration. It breaks down like this: 41.8 percent, Democratic; 31.7 percent, Republican; 26.5 percent, unaffiliated. G65 voters get to cast their ballots in NC Senate District 28, which is an open seat with the retirement of Democrat Katie Dorsett. The Democratic primary ballot includes Gladys Robinson and Evelyn Miller, while the Republican ballot includes Jeffrey Brommer and Trudy Wade.
The Adams-Johnson matchup
Back to the student vote. Turnout among registered voters in G69, near Bennett College, last year fell at 9.9 percent. Faring much worse — each below 5 percent — were G67 and G68, the two precincts that include A&T. Both historically black institutions lie in NC House District 58, where Democratic incumbent Alma Adams is fending off a challenge from Ralph Johnson. Both candidates are black, so if the students can be mobilized they will be a coveted demographic.