Voter turnout plummets for Hamilton County, state elections

Deborah Parino turns in her ballot after voting at the District 1 Falling Water precinct on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.
Deborah Parino turns in her ballot after voting at the District 1 Falling Water precinct on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

Voter turnout numbers

Year - Eligible voters - Ballots cast - Turnout %2016 - 186,384 - 29,100 - 15.612014 - 206,044 - 53,964 - 26.062012 - 216,003 - 50,562 - 23.412010 - 207,961 - 51,809 - 24.912008 - 190,150 - 30,414 - 15.992006 - 182,250 - 50,968 - 27.972004 - 171,899 - 31,373 - 18.252002 - 159,859 - 47,957 - 30.002000 - 178,677 - 28,674 - 16.051998 - 175,865 - 53,089 - 30.191996 - 161,700 - 35,915 - 22.211994 - 136,345 - 56,515 - 41.45

Hamilton County general and Tennessee primary election stories

Voter turnout historically takes a dive in local August elections in a presidential election year, but on Thursday night Hamilton County came closer to the bottom of the pool than ever.

For the first time in more than two decades, voter participation dropped to 15.61 percent, with a mere 29,100 ballots cast out of 186,384 eligible voters.

"I was disappointed," said Kerry Steelman, administrator of elections for the Hamilton County Election Commission.

"I look at preparing for elections like getting ready for the ball game," Steelman said. "We've all practiced, we're ready, we're energized, we're fired up, and the team doesn't come. They forfeit."

A dip in voter participation is typical for an August election just months before the nation makes its final decision on who will be the next to sit in the Oval Office.

From 2000 to 2008, voter participation in local elections suffered during presidential years, hovering in the upper teens, well below the 25 to 30 percent that can be expected in other years. At a little over 23 percent, the 2012 August election is an outlier.

While the participation rate was abysmal this year, it could have been even lower if it weren't for the Election Commission's curation of the voter list. Since 2012, almost 30,000 voters have been trimmed from the record high of 216,003, a total that would have put this year's participation closer to 13.5 percent.

Steelman said some of the loss of those voters can be reasonably attributed to death and moving, but he also said part of the equation is voter inactivity - the number of inactive, registered voters has grown to about 50,000 in Hamilton County.

If a voter fails to participate over the course of two November election cycles, he or she is placed on a list of inactive voters not included in the commission's tally of eligible voters. After two more November cycles of non-participation, the voter is "purged," and must re-register.

But it wasn't just Hamilton County's voter turnout numbers that took a beating. Adam Ghassemi, the communications director in the Tennessee secretary of state's elections division, said the trend was statewide, possibly because of what was up for grabs.

"It was light, but I think you have to consider what was on the ballot. There were really no true statewide offices on the ballot," he said.

According to Ghassemi, aside from a few congressional districts and various state houses, there wasn't a big race to draw people out of their homes. But the low turnout has left him undaunted in anticipation of November, when he expects a huge wave of participation.

"There's no one reason that you can blame [Thursday's low turnout] on, but I think the important thing to note is that voters seem engaged," he said.

Others aren't so sure about that. Dr. Amanda Wintersieck, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it's possible the unusual presidential election is depressing elections down the ticket.

"There were lots of calls that the system was rigged," she said about this year's presidential primaries. "All of those messages hitting voters leads them to feel like their vote doesn't matter. If it's unimportant, why should they vote?"

She said it's a shame, because local elections have a more direct impact on the lives of voters, and local elections are what individuals can have the most impact upon. That much was clear Thursday in Hamilton County's school board races, some of which were decided by as few as a dozen votes.

One of the biggest nail-biters of the evening was in the race for District 4, which covers a strip in the center of the county, including portions of the Southside and East Chattanooga.

The district is one of the largest, containing 14 schools, many of which are among the poorest and lowest performing in the county, but at the end of the night, the winner was decided by only 54 votes. Only 2,185 votes were cast in the race overall.

Tiffanie Robinson unseated George Ricks after dominating precincts like Murray Hills, Kingspoint and East Lake, but a slight swing in the other direction in one or two areas could have cost her.

The race in District 2 was also painfully close, as incumbent Jonathan Welch and challenger Kathy Lennon divided one precinct after another between the two of them. Lennon eventually claimed the seat with 1,791 votes to Welch's 1,693.

Post-election numbers uncovered important details about voting in other races, including a hotly contested race for assessor of property between Republican Marty Haynes and Democrat Mark Siedlecki.

Siedlecki dominated every precinct in and around the downtown area, claiming 12,158 votes, but Haynes managed to clinch the rest of the county and pulled in 16,104 votes.

Speaking about the low totals, Wintersieck said local elections fly under the radar of many voters who are consumed with what is happening on a national level - a major problem in her mind.

"From a very young age we are brought up to understand that the presidency is this big thing that matters a lot and then, followed by that, the Senate and the House," she said. "We're not really educated as democratic citizens to understand the extent that our involvement in our local politics matters."

Whether voters have been convinced their vote doesn't matter or they're just too distracted with what is playing out between the presidential candidates is anyone's guess, but Steelman for one attributes poor voter turnout to the latter.

"It's all you hear about," he said. "They've got November on the brain."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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