Garner’s low turnout is typical of local elections

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 12, 2013 

Voters head to the Heather Hills Clubhouse polling location to vote in the Nov. 5 Garner Town Council election. Less than 10 percent of elligible voters voted.

KYLE JAHNER — kjahner@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Last week’s election results left two Garner Town Council candidates re-elected and one vanquished. But voter turnout left all three disappointed.

Municipal elections often have low voter turnout, though the effects of a vote in a local election can have a big impact on residents.

On Nov. 5, 3,349 votes were cast, and voters could vote for two candidates each. Assuming most voted for two candidates, fewer than 1,700 voters made it to the polls.

“One thing we noticed is that we had a very low voter turnout,” said Councilwoman Kathy Behringer, who won her re-election bid, along with fellow incumbent Gra Singleton. “My take on it is that citizens are content and happy with how government has been going for the past few years, and a lot of them didn’t show up.

“It’s not what they should have done, in my opinion.”

Singleton and challenger Jeanette Hagwood independently echoed those sentiments.

Town Councilman Buck Kennedy said at a council meeting before the election that minimal voter turnout would be “the worst thing.”

Singleton suggested some ideas for a fix; he said voters complained that they had to vote in two elections in less than a month to vote for council as well as the school board and school bond issue. He also said it left some voters confused.

“Why can’t we combine these?” he asked.

Turnout was down from the election two years ago, when three council seats and the mayor’s chair were on the ballot. But that election (which saw 2,603 votes for mayor) also fell short of the turnout generated on broader elections.

Local elections typically occur on odd years so as not to be over-shadowed by larger ones, where political ad time and media attention would overwhelm the comparatively spendthrift municipal campaigns.

But some argue that local leaders, often chosen with input from less than 10 percent of residents, offer voters greater control over their destiny.

“What they do has more direct impact on their lives,” voter Rod Williams said after casting his votes for Town Council.

By the numbers

Garner has 18,254 registered voters, according to the Wake County Board of Elections.

The Town Council oversees a budget of $25.7 million. That means if voter turnout is 10 percent, there is a total of about $14,000 budget dollars per voter.

Though a crude measure of the importance of each vote, the contrast can be striking. The last County Commissioners race in 2010, a congressional voting year but not a presidential, saw nearly 270,000 votes cast as Phil Matthews was elected, a turnout roughly four times a municipal race.

With a budget just short of $1 billion, that left about $3,650 per vote.

Similar math on recent state representative and governor elections show totals ranging from $6,200 (House) to $4,400 (Senate) per vote. (Each representative was given the state budget divided by the number of members in each house to reflect the representatives’ proportion of control; the governor’s race used the full budget.) All of those races had substantially higher turnout.

And in those races, many of those dollars controlled are spent outside of Garner, in places that wouldn’t affect residents.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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