A recent study sponsored the Mobile County Commission may have helped pinpoint some of the reasons local elections have seen consistently low voter turnout, with at least one political scientist saying they should be “a cause for concern.”
Sam Fisher, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, last week unveiled findings from a study his department conducted into the various factors that impact local voter turnout.
Through a series of focus group interviews with random Mobile County voters, the study set out to identify why some residents participate in local elections and others do not. Fisher said low voter turnouts can be particularly impactful in local elections.
“A very small percentage of the population actually makes decisions about who is going to represent us, whether it’s the County Commission, City Council or state Legislature,” Fisher said.
In his report, Fisher wrote there are generally three factors to consider when evaluating voter turnout: the logistics of getting voters to the voting booths, the individual voter’s interest in the races on the ballot and whether or not they believe their vote will matter.
“State elections laws regarding voter registration and local laws regarding the number of precincts and the number of voting machines have an impact. Individuals [also] have to be self-motivated to actually go out and vote,” Fisher said. “The third factor is whether people view the election as competitive. When a race is perceived to be tight, more people are likely to vote since a vote is seen as having more weight under those circumstances.”
Fisher’s study also analyzed some of the recent voter turnout totals recorded in Mobile County, which suggest that during most elections a significant percentage of local residents choose to sit out the democratic process out altogether.
Only 62,485 ballots were cast during the primaries for the 2018 midterm elections, which is roughly 21 percent of the 290,729 voters registered in the county at the time. Presidential election cycles usually see the most participation, but even those are low in Mobile County, according to Fisher.
Despite high national interest, the 2016 presidential election only managed to bring in 61 percent of registered voters. That’s more than most midterm or special elections, but lower than the turnout recorded during the presidential elections in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000 and 1996.
Whether or not residents show up to the polls on Election Day, they are still paying for it. Last year’s special U.S. Senate election cost Mobile County more than $750,000, though some of that was reimbursed by the state. After the general election on Nov. 6, the county will have spent more than $860,000 to pay and train poll workers and supply the voting precincts.
According to Fisher, most respondents he spoke with said they or their friends who don’t vote in certain elections do so for a number of reasons. For some it was apathy, though others residents said they felt their individual vote wouldn’t have much of an impact.
Between the 2016 presidential election, the 2017 municipal elections, the special U.S. Senate election and the 2018 midterms, some residents in Mobile will have gone to the polls seven times over the past two years, and are likely gearing up to go again Nov. 6.
The report from Fisher’s study also suggested election fatigue could be a problem.
As for why people do vote, Fisher said most answers he collected support previous findings that people who vote tend to come from families that value participating in the process. He also noted voting is usually habitual and those who vote once tend to keep voting.
“Most people said they vote because they believe it’s their civic duty,” Fisher said. “However, one of their concerns was that we don’t do a very good job teaching younger people that. One of the suggestions that came out of our discussions was to encourage high schools to do a better job educating students about the process, though some also said that’s the responsibility of parents.”
A spokesperson with the Mobile County Public School System told Lagniappe “at least one teacher is responsible for providing voter registration information and forms to eligible students” at each of its high schools.
When asked what they felt could change about the process to help improve voter turnout, especially among young adults, participants had several suggestions. Fisher said setting up a period of early voting and allowing automatic voter registration seemed to resonate with most.
While only 11 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration for residents turning 18, Alabama is in the minority when it comes to provisions that allow for early voting. Currently, 35 states have early voting, but Alabama only allows it for absentee voters.
The deadline to register to vote is Monday, Oct. 22.
The League of Women Voters of Mobile was also involved in commissioning Fisher’s study. Last week league president Mary Anne Wilson said the study showed the organization residents who do participate in local elections want to make informed decisions in the voting booth.
“People want candidate accessibility and they want information about the candidates and the issues,” Wilson said. “We are always encouraging citizens to be informed voters, which has been at the heart of the league’s mission for almost 100 years now.”
Wilson also encouraged anyone interested in information about voter registration or the candidates who will be on the midterm ballots in November to visit the League of Women Voters’ statewide information website, vote411.org.
More about the results from Fisher’s study, including direct comments from some participants, can be found at lagniappemobile.com.