Saturday, January 01, 2011

Oconee County Voters See Economy, Lack of Jobs and Housing Market as Most Important Problems

Growth Also an Issue

While Oconee County voters are concerned about the local economy, unemployment and the weak housing market, about one in 10 also is concerned, even in the economic downturn, with what these voters see as rapid and unchecked growth with its adverse effects on the quality of their lives.

Some see a connection between the unwanted growth and the decline in the value of their homes and blame county policies for both.

While it is clear that not all voters are opposed to development, the opinions of a significant number of citizens are at odds with the strongly pro-development policy articulated by members of the county’s Industrial Development Authority and the Board of Commissioners.

This is the conclusion I reached from analysis of responses of 149 registered voters to a scientific survey conducted by my students late last year.

Economic issues, including the collapse of the local housing market and unemployment, top the list of problems that Oconee County voters think the county is facing.

Voters also are concerned about problems they see in the county’s schools.

The voters identified these concerns in response to a question on the scientific survey of registered voters conducted in the two weeks before the November election. The question asked the voters to identify in their own words “the most important problem facing Oconee County today.”

The survey was conducted by graduate students in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The course, which I taught, was designed to teach students how to use social science methods to measure public opinion and how to analyze and interpret the data.

The students interviewed voters whose names had been selected from the Oconee County voter registration list I purchased from the Georgia Secretary of State office for use by the class.

Comparisons of the characteristics of those interviewed with the overall voter list shows that the sample was representative of all registered voters on several key characteristics. The sample of 149 does include fewer young voters than the overall voter list.

Most of the questions on the survey dealt with national political issues, but the students included the most important problem question to localize the survey for Oconee County.

I classified the responses to the open-ended question posed to the voters to get a sense of voter concerns. The actual responses and my classification of them is on the site for this blog.

The weakness of the local housing market was the top economic issue, with more than one in 10 of the voters giving that response to the question.

One voter listed the “real estate market and the impact of the developments that were started and basically stopped because of the economy” as the most important problem.

Another said the problem is “the Board of Commission's leadership that leads to the downfall of housing.”

About one in 10 of the voters listed growth as the most important problem.

“It's the expansion, the rapid rise of this county,” one respondent said. “They're stripping the land and building cookie-cutter houses, forgetting about the lifelong residents of this county.”

“Too many ball fields, not enough cotton fields,” another said simply.

At a joint meeting of the Industrial Development Authority and the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 13, members pitched ideas to the members of the Board of Commissioners about what steps should be taken to promote development in the county.

While Board members did not embrace any of the ideas specifically, none said that development should be slowed.

At a town hall meeting in June on development, all BOC members present took strong pro-development stances, despite the observation from at least one of the citizens present that many people in the county were opposed to further development.

In what might be seen as an example of a pro-development response, one voter said the most important problem facing the county is that “People are out of work.”

“The lack of jobs,” another voter said simply in response to the interviewer-posed question about the most important problem.

The problems voters see with the schools are quite varied, ranging from issues of finance to drug and alcohol use.

One voter said “not enough money (is) spent on education” in the county, while another said “the school system (is) using money in the wrong way.” The voter mentioned “sports” as an example of misuse of limited funds.

Another voter said the most important problem facing the county is “alcohol and drug abuse” among teenagers at the schools.

Thirteen of the voters said they could not identify a problem facing the county, and 10 said the county did not have any problems.

Four people said the most important problem in Oconee County is the people.

“We still have a quite a few people in Oconee County who are prejudiced,” one voter said.

Another said people are not open-minded in Oconee County. A third said there is a “fear of new ideas in the county.”

I classified the following response to the most important problem question as a concern about zoning.

Property rights” are the most important problem, the voter said. “When you own the property, certain rights come with that. We try to infringe what other people do with their property.”

The voter continued: “If we don't like it, we can move somewhere else. You should be able to use what is yours. Biggest problem with UGA/university system is that those people show up and fight everything that is proposed.”

The students conducted the interviews from Oct. 20 to Nov. 1. They completed 135 of the interviews by telephone, with the remainder conducted in person or online.

Voter registration lists contain names, addresses, and some personal characteristics of voters as a means of preventing voter fraud.

The lists do not contain telephone numbers. The students were able to find telephone numbers in online directories for about three-quarters of those selected for the survey.

The students drew an initial sample of 825 persons from the 22,538 registered voters in the county on Sept. 20, but they actually only tried to contact 620 of those persons.

The students were able to complete an interview with about one in four of those they contacted. The completion rate is high in comparison with what is usually achieved in polls today.

The sample error for the survey is 8 percent, meaning that the odds are 19 to 1 that the true response for the whole population of 22,538 Oconee County voters, had they been interviewed, would have fallen within plus or minus 8 percentage points of the percent calculated from the sample.

In fact, the sample of 149 voters closely matched the population of 22,538 registered voters in the county in terms of gender, race and precinct of registration. The sample contained more voters in the 51 plus age group and fewer in the 18 to 30 age group than does the total list of registered voters.

Young persons generally are harder to reach in surveys because they are more likely to be away from home studying and working and more heavily rely on mobile phones.

While the survey was of registered voters only, most persons 18 years old and older in Oconee County are registered to vote. Based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the county has a voter-age population of about 23,925, indicating that about 95 percent of those 18 years old or older in Oconee County are registered.

While it was easy to classify many of the responses to the question on the most important problem facing Oconee County, some responses were idiosyncratic.

One voter said the most important problem facing Oconee County was lack of media covering Oconee County and a resultant lack of an “informed citizenry.”

The survey also contained a question asking the respondents to name their “source of news about what is happening here in Oconee County.”

Eleven of the 149 respondents said they didn’t follow Oconee County news, and three said they didn’t know what source they used, suggesting they didn’t follow the news much either.

Many voters listed more than one source.

Overall, 23 percent of the respondents mentioned The Oconee Enterprise as their source, 21 percent mentioned the Athens Banner-Herald and its online edition, and 17 percent listed The Oconee Leader.

Seventeen percent of respondents said they got their Oconee County news from “the newspaper” or the “local paper” without mentioning a paper by name.

Some respondents indicated the most important source of Oconee County news for them was the television stations in Atlanta, which almost never cover news in the county.

One voter answered simply that his “wife” was the source he relied on most for news about the county.