No show: Asheville voter turnout on the decline

Buncombe turnout: Though 73.8 percent of Buncombe residents are registered to vote (both blue and red), only 42.5 percent (blue alone) of eligible voters made it to the polls in 2010. These numbers are based on population demographics from the 2010 U.S. Census, voter registration statistics from October of that year and voter turnout numbers from the November 2010 nonpresidential election.

“Our democracy is built on knowledge and participation, and the more we get of those two things, the better,” says Chris Cooper, the chair of Western Carolina University’s political science and public affairs department. That’s particularly true in local elections, he notes. “Your vote matters more, because there are fewer people voting. Mathematically, it carries more weight.”

Nonetheless, presidential elections typically generate a higher turnout, both nationally and locally. Meanwhile, across the country, overall voter participation has been dwindling for decades.

Asheville is widely considered a progressive, politically aware city, yet in municipal elections, only a woefully small percentage of registered voters actually makes it to the polls — and those already feeble numbers have been dropping even more in recent years.

In the hotly contested 2012 presidential race, for example, 69 percent of registered Buncombe County voters showed up at the polls. Two years later, the number of participating county voters dropped precipitously, to 46.7 percent.

Asheville’s municipal elections, meanwhile, have seen even lower turnout. In the last one, in 2013, a mere 18.3 percent of registered city voters cast ballots.

There have been occasional spikes in interest, most notably in the 2001 and 2009 municipal contests, but it’s hard to say why they occurred. For example, two seemingly significant political dates — 1997, when Asheville’s first woman mayor was elected, and 2005, when the city elected its first black mayor — actually saw a decrease in turnout.

“It looks like [the spikes] are in years after presidential [elections],” says Trena Parker, the county’s director of election services. “The more I think about it, the more it might account for some of it: Everybody gets registered before a presidential election; everybody jumps on the wagon.” As for the larger significance, however, “I don’t know what that means,” says Parker.

Media and money

Whatever the reasons, city voter participation is clearly trending downward. And when it comes to primary elections, which help determine which choices voters will have in November, the numbers are downright dismal.

In Asheville’s October 2007 primary, only 13 percent of eligible voters showed up — the lowest figure ever recorded up till then. But that number was trumped by 2009’s 11 percent, which was then outstripped by 10 percent in 2011. And in 2013, Asheville primary elections hit a new all-time low with a 9 percent turnout.

“It’s a national problem: People are less engaged in local politics and know less about them,” Cooper told Xpress earlier this year. “Part of that is the media: It’s a lot easier to access information about national politics. It would be impossible not to know who Barack Obama is, but a lot of people don’t know who the mayor of their town is, or their city manager.”

Besides, he continued, “National issues are more conveniently ideological. Take abortion, for example: Most people have an opinion on that, and it’s a pretty clear-cut opinion. But a zoning ordinance? It really does affect people’s lives in important ways, but it’s not as easy an issue to have an opinion on.”

Ironically, though, notes Dolly Jenkins-Mullen, an associate professor of political science at UNC Asheville, “Local and state governments are most responsible for those services and life issues that we actually deal with. If, for example, your garbage collection were to stop or slow significantly, you’d be calling the city to complain.”

But in national elections, she continues, “You see all of the campaigning, and the effort is very visible. People spend millions and millions of dollars putting their face in front of your face.”

And since Asheville’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, voters can’t take the easy way out and vote a straight party ticket. Instead, they must depend heavily on their own often meager knowledge of the candidates.

Glaring racial disparities

In 2010, 92.9 percent of eligible Buncombe County residents were registered to vote, yet only 45.7 percent of them took part in that year’s election. And the racial breakdown reveals substantial differences.

Most county residents are white; 75.9 percent of them were registered to vote, and nearly half of those (47 percent) actually did.

That same year, 67.8 percent of black residents were registered, and 38 percent made it to the polls. In other words, only 25.7 percent of the county’s black population weighed in during this election.

Other races and ethnicities showed an even greater disparity. In 2010, only 2.6 percent of the Hispanic population voted, 7.5 percent of the Asian population, 9 percent of the American Indian population and 13.7 percent of those who indicated their race as “other.”

“I’m not sure the significance of voting is embraced by many Americans,” says Jenkins-Mullen. “If you go into the communities where the voter turnout is the lowest, they’ll tell you, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter: It’s not going to make any difference.’ And you also see that manifested in directions outside of voting.”

Distracted citizens?

Racial considerations aside, notes Parker, “What I can say for sure is that turnout is always influenced, one way or the other, by the candidates on the ballot: how hard they campaign, what types of issues they raise. They really generate the excitement in the long run.”

But for Jenkins-Mullen, the key point is that citizens aren’t putting their vote to work where it could actually make the most difference.

“When you consider how far away Washington is, one would think you would pay closer attention to what’s nearest you. … I think Americans are distracted, quite frankly, away from politics.”

Often, she continues, “People say, ‘I don’t do politics.’ And I say, ‘No: You may not do it, but it does you!’”


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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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9 thoughts on “No show: Asheville voter turnout on the decline

  1. drake

    Can you blame them?? Why bother voting!? 90% of the wealth generated in this country since OBAMA took office in 2008 went to the top 5%….. not much of a “change” since “W”. A complete system change would be the only thing I vote for!

    • Edison Carter

      You get the government you deserve. Go ahead and don’t vote, but then don’t come whining to the comment section of any publications to gripe about the results with vapid comments. And by the way, 90% of the wealth transfer didn’t happen under President Obama’s two terms, “genus”. It started way back with Reagan’s tax policies, and accelerated out of control with the last Bush administration. It was called “Trickle Down Economics” if you weren’t paying attention, back then.

      • drake

        Where, oh where; do you see anything on my post that makes you think that I’m NOT aware of our current socioeconomic income disparity being a result of ongoing Reaganomics? Any economist will tell you that Obama is obsessed with Reaganomics and has mirrored them in every sense! Obama campaigned on “Change”…. Have we seen any substantial economic policy changes since his administration? NO! There hasn’t been! We still/ and will continue to have politicians campaign on issues that they know they have no chance of changing; ALL without any reprimand; they continue to betray the American public. This is our system; and our system MUST CHANGE; so why vote?

  2. Grant Milin

    Again great job, Hayley. Though disturbing questions arise.

    This is another critical aspect of a growing list of matters that causes more than a little reflection as someone willing to be a member of Asheville city council. I have followed these turnout numbers and basically there is no mandate behind Asheville city council with 9 percent primary turnout. 18 percent turnout for a city general election after 9 percent primary turnout obviously means 9 percent of the city’s activists are determining whom the following 18 percent will vote for. It’s a kind of no confidence vote when the numbers are that low.

    This is unacceptable. I realize many candidates are working the canvassing angle, buying yard signs and bumper stickers. But those efforts aren’t dramatically increasing turnout. In 2012 the major anti-democracy moves from the NC GOP hadn’t come forward yet so this voter turnout challenge isn’t just about what the GOP is doing.

    I wanted to focus on new ideas and new ways of running our democracy, at least from the Asheville/WNC level. I tried to set up a collaborative community innovation laboratory option where voters and candidates would sit together and work on our challenges together. I contacted the League of Women Voters, Leadership Asheville, UNCA, and A-B Tech as well as MX and Citizen-Times.

    Instead of avoiding the issue of lackluster voter mandate behind city hall right now, this city council should have jumped on the CoLabs opportunity. Yes, I can take credit for the idea. But I suggest a task force to put together the CoLabs so each candidate can have a chance to show what they’ve got. You’ll see my CoLabs article is dated July 12. Community leaders had ample time to get the CoLabs going and allow a new free flow of ideas and strategy from and between both the citizens who don’t seek elected office and those who do.

    If the CoLabs brought out even 1,000 more voters, then that would have been a win. Our institutions need a new external responsible innovation driver. I look forward to sharing more about the Sustain Asheville initiative which will help provide that performance monitoring and community innovation power.

    Governing Magazine has also covered the issue of low voter turnout, especially in municipal elections.

  3. HuhHuh

    “Asheville is widely considered a progressive, politically aware city”… again, a gross generalization that is blatantly false.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Oh? I wasn’t aware that Asheville had a far-reaching reputation as a conservative, politically ignorant city. You learn something new every day.

      • Big Al

        What he means is that while Asheville appears to be “progressive” because its’ city council TALKs big on the environment, minority rights and other leftist issues, the real decision-making appears to easily manipulated by “evil capitalists”, like commercial real estate developers and their lawyers, the Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders, which are increasingly including non-local chains. Most of the time when aging hippies, new hipsters artists and activists line up against money, money wins just like everywhere else. No Arcadia or Utopia here, but plenty of hyperbole and hypocrisy.

  4. OneWhoKnows

    Taxpayers are SO disgusted they choose not to participate…AVL is just run SO poorly…Plannning and Zoning, for example, has
    about twice the number of employees now than 2 years ago, and it takes twice as long to get approvals – or – none at all…then you have all the hipster wannabes living intown who don’t have a CLUE about city govco. Then all the poor people who cannot get to the polls, right? And don’t forget all the unregistered voters who are kept from voting when the democrat bus pulls up with cigarette money for their vote, but then they cannot perform…dang. Then all the felons who lost the right to vote – lots of them around here too…

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