published Thursday, August 16th, 2012

At 23 percent, Hamilton County sets voter turnout record


by Chris Carroll

TURNAROUND

Between 1992 and 2008, August elections that included gubernatorial primaries were vastly more popular than those that didn't. On average, 17,797 more Hamilton County ballots were cast in such "off-year" August elections than those that occurred a few months before a presidential election.

But this month's ballot attracted barely 1,200 fewer voters than the August 2010 election, when several big political names — Bill Haslam, Mike McWherter, Ron Ramsey, Zach Wamp -- made their gubernatorial bids as former Gov. Phil Bredesen's second and final term expired.

August 2010 voters — 51,809

August 2012 voters — 50,562

Source: Hamilton County Election Commission

In baseball terms, Hamilton County voters couldn't even crack a .250 batting average -- fewer than one in four registered voters in Tennessee's fourth-largest county cast a ballot in the Aug. 2 elections.

But it's all relative: Enough residents took advantage of two weeks of early voting, hot races and beautiful election-day weather to give Hamilton County its largest turnout rate for a comparable election since 1992.

Of 216,003 registered voters, 50,562 visited the polls or mailed absentee ballots, yielding a 23 percent turnout and ending a 12-year stretch in which the rate floundered in the teens.

Hamilton County voters punched 20,000 more ballots this year than in August 2008, the last time county general elections and state and federal primaries preceded a presidential election.

This month's turnout was the highest in a comparable election since 1996, eclipsing that year's 22 percent rate.

"We're supposed to get out the vote, so we're delighted," Hamilton County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan said, adding that nearly 40 percent of the ballots were cast before election day -- a trend that manifested itself statewide as Tennessee broke an early voting record set in 2008.

•••

The Hamilton County Election Commission doesn't track how many Republican ballots were cast versus Democratic ballots, Mullis-Morgan said. But deeply partisan federal races, such as Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District primary and the U.S. Senate primary, attracted local Republicans over Democrats by a 3-to-1 margin.

"Four years ago turnout was 5-to-1 Republicans," Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said. "It's a big jump."

In fact, the most lopsided turnout margin in the August 2008 Hamilton County election was a 2-to-1 Republican advantage in the 3rd Congressional District primary, records show.

Marty Von Schaaf, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said the party hasn't used much of its get-out-the-vote resources and predicted local GOP domination in November.

"We're moving ahead," he said. "Not taking anything for granted, not asleep at the wheel."

•••

Despite the good feeling at the election commission, there appears to be room for improvement and cost savings. Of the county's 126 precincts, 23 had single-digit turnout percentages and 22 reported fewer than 50 ballots cast.

Four others -- Alton Park 2, Apison 3, Concord 3 and Summit 1 -- failed to draw a single voter. Each precinct requires a worker and an officer for a cost of $260 per precinct.

Combined, Apison 3, Concord 3 and Summit 1 have 12 registered voters on the rolls.

The election commission has progressed in consolidating or reducing the number of small, sparingly used precincts. The four that were staffed but dormant this month are an improvement over the presidential primary in March, when nine precincts with a total of 117 registered voters recorded zero votes.

But with a touch of frustration, Mullis-Morgan said "we've done all we can for now." A mix of geography and mismatched city, county, state and federal districts will keep Alton Park 2, Apison 3, Concord 3 and Summit 1 in existence until 2020, she said.

That's when the next U.S. Census arrives, bringing with it new rounds of redistricting and redrawing of voting districts.

"We're going to have to live with it until then," Mullis-Morgan said.

Other National Articles

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement
400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.