Voter Turnout: How Low is Low?



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.

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