Despite a slew of candidates, a city with an abundance of political activists and several high-profile issues, when the Oct. 9 primary election rolled around, voter turnout was low—very low.
In fact, it was the lowest recorded by the Buncombe County Board of Elections since nonpartisan elections began in 1994. The last two primaries, in 2005 and 2003, drew 16.9 percent and 16 percent of registered voters, respectively. But whatever might be said about those numbers, on Oct. 9, a mere 7,674 voters—just 13 percent of those registered—turned up at the polls.
The biggest turnout was in the Montford, St. Eugene’s and Roberson precincts; Shiloh, the precinct with the most registered voters, accounted for just 3 percent of the final tally.
Even more than in previous years, young voters and African-Americans stayed home. Only 203 voters between the ages of 18 and 25 showed up—a mere 2.6 percent of all those who cast ballots. Meanwhile, just 577 African-Americans voted (7.5 percent of the total). African-Americans make up about 16 percent of the city’s population and account for 11.8 percent of registered voters.
But why was the turnout so low?
“In a nonpartisan system like Asheville has, voter turnout revolves around candidate efforts,” says UNCA political-science professor Bill Sabo. “When you have voter turnout lower than previous years, it means that people are content with the leadership they’ve got, or the field of candidates failed to arouse their interest enough to go out and vote.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy points to a lack of awareness in the community, saying, “I started asking people, and they just did not know there were primary elections going on. Many were very apologetic when they learned they’d missed them. People just didn’t know.”
Xpress readers offered up their own bag of speculations on the Xpress news blog.
“The low turnout seems to reflect what occurs on the national level,” wrote a reader weighing in as “Dionysis.” “An election looms, people rant and rave and then fail to vote. One could conclude that the answer to the rhetorical question of why people don’t vote is simple: apathy.”
Others placed the blame squarely on the current City Council.
“Perhaps after the past few years of a City Council that disregards the public interest, the [public] has now become disinterested with the candidates as well,” opined a reader going by “Ash-villain.”
Reader Martin Ramsey concurred, asserting that the controversial attempt to switch to partisan elections (which will now be decided by a referendum as part of the Nov. 6 general election) had played its part:
“I personally think it’s backlash from the recent attempts to drag national politics into a local arena, and a pretty liberal one. I didn’t give a damn if most o’ the slate lost—which is enough to keep one from voting.” Ramsey, however, says he voted nonetheless.
But “John Warren” cited exactly the opposite reason for the low turnout, writing: “People are happy with the current Council. … We have no open seats, and the only three worth voting for are the three already on Council.”
Whatever the reasons, though, much remains at stake in the upcoming general election, notes Ruth Christie, president of the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County. “There are wide differences in the approaches and positions taken by people running [in] this election on issues Asheville cares about, like the environment, development and affordable housing.”
And indeed, a look at the six remaining candidates’ stated positions does reveal some major differences. Incumbent Brownie Newman supports partisan elections, while Bryan Freeborn, who originally voted for such a change, has said he’ll support the result of the referendum. Meanwhile, the other four candidates running—Elaine Lite, Bill Russell, Dwight Butner and incumbent Jan Davis—all oppose partisan elections.
There are also significant differences on issues such as development and affordable housing. Lite has championed some controversial measures aimed at stopping what she feels is runaway growth: a moratorium on major development, a possible ban on chain stores downtown, and height limits for buildings. She also advocates establishing a land trust as a way to provide more affordable housing.
Freeborn, on the other hand, talks about giving neighborhood residents more say in the development that goes on in their area, using city-owned property to develop affordable housing and expanding the reach of mass transit.
Russell, the lone Republican candidate, says he would support using city-owned property on South Charlotte Street to create affordable housing as well as other mixed-use development. He also emphasizes the need for lower taxes and incentives to attract new businesses.
Similarly, Davis advocates partnering with businesses to bring better-paying jobs to the area as a way to help address the affordable-housing issue. In addition, he supports renovating or building a new Civic Center and cracking down on crime.
Newman has proposed waiving all city fees for developers building affordable housing and further encouraging it via tax incentives. He also supports requiring all newly built city facilities to meet LEED environmental design-and-performance standards.
Butner, the only unaffiliated candidate, has focused on encouraging the development of more affordable rental and starter homes by streamlining the city’s Unified Development Ordinance and on promoting dialogue with neighborhood residents.
“Our forum this week was very well-attended, and [there will be] several other forums before the general election,” notes Christie of the League of Women Voters, who says she’s optimistic that turnout will improve. “I think we’ve got more people paying attention this time around. I’d ask everybody to remember how many people fought—in so many different ways—for us to have the right to vote.”
Bellamy, meanwhile, says that “anytime people have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote, especially in municipal elections, they need to use it.”
Of course, getting to the polls on election day can be stressful and difficult, as Xpress reader “arratik,” pointed out while talking about the primaries.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but by the time I made it through that nasty traffic jam on 240 that afternoon (a mulch truck caught on fire during rush hour, and it was raining pretty heavily), I just wanted to go home, pop open a beer, and flop down on the couch for a little while.
“But I voted first.”
The early bird gets the ballot
City residents who can’t wait until Nov. 6 can take advantage of early voting at the Buncombe County Board of Elections (189 College St. in Asheville), through Saturday (at 1 p.m), Nov. 3. For details, call the Board of Elections at 250-4200, or visit www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/Election/
Also on the ballot: Partisan/nonpartisan referendum
Last June, the Asheville City Council voted to change mayoral and Council elections from nonpartisan to partisan status. But a successful petition drive blocked the move, and it will be up to Asheville voters to decide the status of future city elections on Nov. 6.
Labeled “City of Asheville Charter Amendment Referendum,” the question on the ballot asks: “Shall the Ordinance (City of Asheville Ordinance No. 3458, adopted by City Council on June 12, 2007), amending the Asheville City Charter and changing the manner of election of the mayor and city council from non-partisan to partisan, be approved?”
Voting “yes” means endorsing the switch to partisan elections. Voting “no” means preferring to stick with nonpartisan elections.