Super Tuesday in Athens suffers from disinterest, experts say

Gail Schrader and the staff at the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections office enjoyed an easier Super Tuesday on March 6 compared to previous elections. While many Georgia citizens took to the polls that day to select a presidential candidate to represent the GOP, only a small portion of Athens-Clarke County citizens took the time to vote.

In fact, only 12 percent of registered voters in Athens-Clarke County made the trip to a voting precinct for the Georgia primary, a drastically low turnout compared to recent elections in Athens-Clarke County.

The low turnout did not surprise Schrader, who serves as supervisor of elections and voter registration, because she expected to see fewer than the 6,985 voters that participated in this year’s primary.

“I expected somewhere around ten percent based on the lack of turnout during our early voting period,” Schrader said.

The turnout was significantly lower than the nearly 50 percent of registered Athens-Clarke County voters that took part in the 2008 presidential primary when Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton. The recent Republican primary turnout was also lower than the 2004 presidential primary, which featured a 27 percent turnout.

Reasons for low voter turnout range from demographic to economic to technological explanations. The cause of a low turnout on March 6 in Athens-Clarke County, according to Schrader, is much simpler.

“There just didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in this election,” said Schrader. “A lot of [Athens-Clarke County] voters vote Democratic, and that side was unopposed.”

Dr. Robert Grafstein, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, believes the disinterest may be indicative of a general disapproval of the candidates in this year’s field.

“Republican voters have consistently indicated that they are not thrilled by the choices they’ve been presented this cycle,” said Grafstein, who also serves as associate dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at UGA.

While Schrader was not alarmed by the low turnout in Athens-Clarke County, Grafstein believes some should be worried about the lack of concern for voting in the primary election this year.

“The low turnout for a primary should be of greater concern to leaders of the Republican Party,” said Grafstein.

Political scientists have often debated what low voter turnout means for the election process and the idea of democracy. Some experts and critics believe a low voter turnout means the election does not represent the will of the people, or constituents.

Grafstein believes that logic should not apply in every election, especially the presidential primaries, but experts must look at factors that may have determined a decreased turnout.

“Primaries traditionally have lower turnout than general presidential elections. Low turnout in those general elections would mean that a relatively small minority is electing our leaders,” said Grafstein. “In any specific election, however, one has to distinguish various reasons for low turnout.”

According to Grafstein, possible factors for a low turnout include lack of interest in politics, disaffection with the parties and their offerings, satisfaction with the status quo, the cost of participation, and the accumulating toll of numerous elections and run-offs.

Legislators in Georgia have created measures intended to increase voter registration, election security, and turnout for elections. For instance, an absentee voter does not have to provide a reason for submitting a mail-in ballot, and forms can be downloaded online to help citizens register to vote.

However, recently Gov. Nathan Deal signed in a law that decreased the early voting window from 45 days to 21 days prior to the election with at least one Saturday prior to the election provided for early voting.

Despite the shortened window for early voting, Schrader believes these laws will help bring more voters to the polls.

“The law has made it easier for citizens to vote by mail,” said Schrader. “Also, early voting helps people have a larger window of time to cast a vote in person.”

The new laws follow a controversial piece of legislation passed by Georgia legislators in 2006 that requires voters provide photo identification before they are allowed to vote. The photo ID law may serve a hindrance to the general election in November, according to Grafstein.

“Obviously Georgia’s voter ID law is likely to lower turnout in the general election,” said Grafstein.

No matter the reasons for low turnout in the past, Schrader insists that local and state officials have set up ways to increase the turnout in upcoming elections and keep the process easy for voters.

“The Georgia voter registration laws have really made it easy to register, with most people registering now when applying for or renewing their driver’s license,” said Schrader. “Also, the [political] parties are usually available to give citizens rides to the polls on Election Day.”

Though there are steps to increase voter participation, if this year’s presidential primary turnout in Athens-Clarke County is any indication, the only ones experiencing a free ride are the ones in charge of counting the votes.

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