Voter Turnout: How Low is Low?

Posted by John Branston on Fri, Mar 11, 2011 at 12:46 PM

The turnout for Tuesday's Memphis-only referendum on MCS charter surrender was about 17 percent.

Some people are saying that is abysmally low and signals a failing democracy in Memphis, apathy, confusion, ignorance, or all of the above. Some say that given the rain and the single-issue referendum, a turnout of 17 percent isn't too bad.

Well, "not too bad" is pretty faint praise. Rain? So what? Even if weather influences turnout whether it should or not, what about early voting? There were several sunny and warm days for early voting. People who didn't vote simply made a choice not to vote or didn't even know there was an election.

Historically, turnout in Memphis and Shelby County is trending downward since 1968, according to Shelby County Election Commission records.

Presidential elections, of course, get the biggest turnout. In the 1968 general election featuring the presidential election between Nixon and Humphrey, the turnout in Shelby County was 73.6 percent. In 1972 it was 68 percent; in 1976 it was 72 percent; in 1980 it was 74 percent; in 1984 it was 71 percent; in 1988 it was 65 percent; in 1992 it was 73 percent; in 1996 (Clinton v. Dole) it was 61 percent; in 2000 it was 58 percent; in 2004 it was 57 percent; in 2008 it was 62 percent.

Memphis municipal elections get a smaller turnout, even when there is a battle for the mayor's office. The turnout in 2007 was 38 percent. When Willie Herenton was first elected in 1991, the turnout was 65 percent.

School board elections, especially runoffs or elections for just one position, get the lowest turnout, as low as 2 percent recently. So by one standard, a turnout of 17 percent this week was not too bad. But given the publicity this issue got, and the alleged importance, a 17-percent turnout was certain to be criticized and cited as evidence that Memphians don't care all that much about their public schools.

The two-to-one margin in favor was greater than I thought it would be. I missed that call. But I still say it was not a mandate and will not be seen as such by residents of Shelby County, county school board members, or the Tennessee General Assembly.

Comments (4)

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Appreciate the post and respect your opinion- in a democracy, the turnout should be at around 95% every election with illness, deaths within families, car wrecks and all sorts of other unexpected events holding back the other 5%. I think at least a little credit should be given to those who held off on early voting. This issue was still evolving as late as this past weekend. Maybe- just maybe- early voting this time around would have been less informed and more irresponsible than usual.

Maybe its all in how you are looking at the picture because I see a very clear mandate (or statement) here: 83% of registered voters in Memphis are so disgusted with the state of the MCS they feel that the situation is hopeless and that voting was going to be a waste of time. 83% of registered voters are aware of the state's unscrupulous actions and believe that any vote is pointless seeing as a bunch of conservative rednecks are going to halt any local changes with the backing of the local 'burbs. I mean why vote, when Mayor McPriss in Germantown says there is no way they are going to let any type of reform effect them? When the state basically neuters the resulting outcome of a vote? Maybe there are those out there that see this as a dammed if you do, damned if you don’t kind of choice. There’s also the issue of why vote when its pretty obvious its going to be a one sided outcome anyway? Maybe a lot of those previous higher turnouts were because the results were thought to be less obvious, thus every vote really could make a key difference.

Weak reasons not to vote, but considering how this was really about choosing between bad and worse, knowing that it doesn’t really matter how I vote because some rich folks out in G’town are going to sue (even though their little Booby and Ann are in a private school), and knowing the state is full of folks that would love to overturn any outcome just to screw Memphis anyway- well now I’ve convinced myself that I wasted my time on Tuesday when I did actually vote.

Posted by barf on 03/11/2011 at 1:59 PM

JB: what would it have taken for you to think it was a mandate? In how many other elections, for any office or on any issue, has the margin been that great? I suspect most political pundits would think that a two-to-one margin is a mandate for the winner.

Besides, who cares whether county voters, SCS board members or the TN General Assembly consider it a mandate, since they ultimately don't care what Memphians want anyway. The consensus seems to be that the vote outcome will speak loudly where it will now count the most: in the ensuing judicial process.

Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 03/11/2011 at 2:05 PM

Excellent comments, Awesome and barf. I think between the two of you you've pretty much nailed it, i.e. the turnout was the turnout one might expect in this day and age with such absence of visibility (of the future) but at the same indubitably a verdict. Hard for the courts (and the state) to ignore. I am cautiously optimistic that this will all work out.

Posted by Tennessee Waltzer on 03/11/2011 at 2:44 PM

Marty. More votes and more focus in the question. Ten yes voters probably had four or five different reasons -- lower taxes, merger now, merger in three years, replace the superintendent, justice and equality, etc.

Posted by John Branston on 03/11/2011 at 6:27 PM
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