“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.”
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!’”