Sunday, March 22, 2009

Turnout Rates Vary for Oconee SPLOST Vote

Urbanized Complacency, Indifference and Apathy

The only surprise in last week’s vote for the 1 cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in Oconee County–if there was any surprise at all–was in the low level of turnout.

The county has a strong record of supporting the special sales tax, and it did so again on Tuesday by an unofficial vote of 1,037 votes for the tax to 419 against.

That 71.2 percent approval was lower than the 81.8 percent approval figure at the last SPLOST vote in 2003 and the 74.8 percent approval in 1999, but the vote clearly was in favor of the tax.

The problem is that only 1,456 voters went to the polls on March 17, causing Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis to comment, as quoted both in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Enterprise post-election stories, on his disappointment in the turnout.

In both stories, Davis is quoted as saying the low turnout means either the voters are "pleased" with the past SPLOSTs or they are "complacent."

It seems reasonable to expect pleased voters to turn out to support a continuation of the SPLOST. Complacency means the voters were self-satisfied or contented to a fault. Indifferent or apathetic would seem to be other possible descriptions.

Just how indifferent or apathetic Oconee County voters were this past week, in comparison with SPLOSTs-past, depends on the comparison.

In 1999, 14.3 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote on the SPLOST renewal, according to certified tallies from the Oconee County Board of Elections. In 2003, 10.2 percent turned out to vote, again, according to certified results.

In certifying results, the Board lists the total number of registered voters, including those who are labeled as inactive but are still eligible to vote if they show up at the polls. The 14.3 percent figure for 1999 and the 10.2 percent figure for 2003 were based on the number of active and inactive voters those years.

The Georgia Secretary of State listed 20,831 active voters in Oconee County as of March 1, 2009, or 12 days after the Feb. 17 voter registration deadline.

I purchased an electronic copy of the full voting registration list for Oconee County–a public record--from the Secretary of State on Feb. 2, and it contained 22,090 names, 20,801 of which were designated as active. The suggestion is that the certified results are going to show the county picked up 30 voters after I purchased the file, making the total 22,120.

Based on either the 22,090 or 22,120 figures, the 1,456 voters who went to the polls on March 17 represented 6.6 percent of the registered voters, a figure considerably below the 10.2 percent figure of 2003.

Both newspapers used the active voter list as a base, increasing the turnout rate only to 7.0 percent–or considerably lower than in 2003.

Regardless of the base for the calculation, it is clear the rate of participation in the SPLOST votes is declining across time.

(I purchased the Oconee County voter list for a project I’m working on with two of my graduate students at the University of Georgia. We are comparing different ways of accessing voters in surveys.)

As I reported in my posting of March 17, the approval rate for the SPLOST vote varied significantly across each of the county’s 13 precincts, from a low of 52.6 percent in Antioch Precinct to a high of 81.0 percent in Bishop Precinct.

Voter turnout rates also varied considerably across the 13 precincts, from a low of 2.6 percent in Dark Corner to a high of 7.0 percent in Antioch. I used the Feb. 2 voter list for the calculation, which should be compared with the turnout rate of 4.7 percent for the county, which is calculated minus the 426 votes cast either during the month of early voting or via absentee ballot.

I did make a mistake in my last pre-election posting about the number of votes cast in early voting. I misunderstood a note sent to me by Mary Lane in the Board of Elections and included the 28 absentee votes in the 398 total figure she gave me for early voting.

If voter complacency or indifference or apathy explains the low voter turnout, it is clear that these feelings are stronger in some of the precincts than in others.

The three precincts with the lowest turnout rates were Dark Corner, Malcolm Bridge and Athens Academy, which are in the most urbanized areas of the county. Of the five precincts with the highest turnout rates, four (High Shoals, Colham Ferry, Farmington and Antioch) are located in the more rural southern part of the county.

Bogart Precinct, in the extreme northern part of the county and urbanized, is the exception, with a high turnout rate. The city of Bogart, which makes up much of the precinct, will get extra funding as a result of the SPLOST since part of it is incorporated, while no parts of Dark Corner, Malcolm Bridge or Athens Academy are incorporated.

Athens Academy and Malcolm Bridge rank in the second and third spots if precincts are ranked by size.

It is possible the 426 provisional and absentee ballots came disproportionately from some of the precincts, distorting these calculations. Once the Secretary of State releases the voting history data for the election–probably within a month or two--it will be possible to reallocate the provisional and absentee votes by precinct to answer that question.

It is unlikely, however, that this allocation will change the conclusion that complacency, indifference or apathy is higher in the very large, urbanized, northern parts of the county than in the rural, less populated south.

Regardless of precinct, and of level of complacency, indifference or apathy, everyone will pay the tax.