THE TOTAL voter turnout in Chatham County for last week’s primary and school board elections was 17.45 percent.
Keep in mind that’s 17.45 percent of registered voters, not all citizens of voting age, less than half of whom are registered.
So as usual, a very small percentage of people determines the future. It’s embarrassing, but not that surprising.
It’s always in vogue to criticize voter turnout numbers, which are never high enough. But in my experience, the people most vocal about saying “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you go vote” are the same people most vocal in complaining about the results of the election.
And if people harnessed even ten percent of the energy they spend complaining on Facebook into action locally — such as researching the issues, for starters – we’d certainly be in better shape overall.
But invariably people, me included, like to use low voter turnout as a way to support all kinds of personal theories, miraculously few of which ever call their own side’s judgement into question.
The facts about this particular election are a bit more mundane. Ostensibly to save taxpayer money, the local school board elections were moved to May to coincide with major party primaries.
This in itself is confusing, because school board races here are completely non-partisan. So voters had a mish-mash of offices to vote for, some on a party ticket, some not.
The end of May is also when school is out and people are planning for graduation. So in Chatham County, the families most affected by school board elections are the families most distracted and the most focused on putting school politics behind them.
The icing on the cake this year was three, count ‘em, three commencement ceremonies happening on Election Day proper.
Indeed, one would be forgiven for arguing that the system is intended to drive down voter participation as much as possible. That would be the most popular criticism and the one that will get the most clicks.
But as usual the truth is somewhere in the middle.
If you were unable to vote on Election Day, there were several weeks of early voting available. There was no lack of media coverage of the election, if you chose to find it. There was no lack of candidate forums to hear more from the candidates themselves.
You can complain about voter participation all you want, but one thing I’ve learned working in the media is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
All the media coverage and candidate forums in the world don’t matter if people don’t tune in, open the newspaper, show up to the forums, and show up to vote.
As for the results on the school board president election, they were on par with expectations, with one big difference.
Virtually everyone I spoke to before the election said it would go to a runoff, almost certainly between Joe Buck, a former school board president seeking a third, non-consecutive term, and Tye Whitely, a relative newcomer who wowed the (small) crowds at all the forums with her passion and populist approach.
Turns out that was half right: Buck did get nearly half the vote all by himself, a testament to both his very high name ID and the general good regard with which he’s held in the community at large.
But the person to make it into the runoff with Buck wasn’t Whitely, but Betty Morgan, who finished with about 24 percent of the vote to Whitely’s 19 percent.
My takeaway from that is that it’s just not enough to have young, progressive support within the faculty community, which seemed to be Whitely’s main base.
Those voters are extremely important in that they do make sure to vote, but there simply aren’t as many of them as their vocal presence might indicate.
(The local daily paper’s somewhat bizarre suggestion that current Board President Jolene Byrne’s endorsement of Whitely is what sunk Whitely’s campaign is not only laughably absurd, but a slap in the face to Betty Morgan, who ran a solid, if under-the-radar, campaign and who is no slouch in terms of personal and professional accomplishments herself.)
As is depressingly common in this area, we’re left once again with an election at least on the surface defined by race.
Buck is white, Morgan is black, and many voters unfortunately will make up their mind based on that alone.
That said, both candidates are mature, reasonable people and neither one seems focused on racial issues that are not, in fact, germane to the local discussion.
There are some issues involving local schools which do in fact involve race, and thus must be a part of the discussion — such as the very real threats of school re-segregation, the status of local choice schools, and inequality of resources throughout the district.
In any case, the runoff is July 24, right in the middle of summer, with many school families away on vacation.
We here will do our best to cover this extremely important election with far-reaching ramifications on local life.
But we can’t vote for everyone.
It’s up to the voters to pay attention to local media coverage, and to show up to or watch the candidate forums, and to actually go vote on Election Day, or to vote early if they can.