Voter Turnout in the Municipal Elections within Greenville County

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Municipal elections just happened in the six cities in Greenville County! Join us as we explore the varied voter turnouts in each city, decode the reasons behind these patterns, discuss the pros and cons of off-year election timings, and more.

Transcript

Katy Smith:
[0:00] Hello, Simple Civics: Greenville County listeners. We are so grateful to you for tuning in on your favorite podcast app or the web to meet local officials, learn about local civics, and connect with the people and issues that matter in our community.
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On November 7, voters went to the polls in the six municipalities of Greenville County to choose the elected officials for their cities.

[1:07] I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville and we were proud to have brought you interviews with almost every candidate.
Today I talk with our producer Nathaniel DeSantis about turnout, what may have impacted it, what other states and communities are doing to bolster it, and any reforms that might happen in South Carolina.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[1:23] So, as the listeners of the podcast know, we just had elections across all the cities in Greenville County.
And as listeners also know, every election season, Katy and I sit down to go over the results and figure out what happened and kind of give you guys some more insight.
So, Katy, I’m excited to be here today to talk to you about the results of the elections.

Katy Smith:
[1:43] It’s very exciting to me, especially since turnout was up, which I know we’ll talk about.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[1:48] Yes, we will get to that. But first, let’s just go overall. How was turnout in the municipal elections within Greenville County?

Katy Smith:
[1:55] They were good. They were good. So in the city of Greenville, more than 22% of registered voters came out to vote, which is a great outcome.

[2:07] In the 2021 municipal election, only 13.3% of voters came out.
So that is a giant jump. Let me tell you about the other cities in Greenville County. Simpsonville saw almost 11% of voters come out.
Travelers Rest had almost 14% of voters vote. Fountain Inn saw 11.6% turnout.
Mauldin had 7.5% and Greer was last with 3.3%.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[2:32] So that’s interesting that we’re seeing a higher turnout this year over last year. So what do you think drove that higher turnout?

Katy Smith:
[2:39] Generally, there’s a couple different factors, external factors that affect turnout.
For any individual things like education and socioeconomic status and all of those affect one’s individual turnout likeliness, but across the board it’s really awareness, access, impact and community.
So with awareness, do people know that an election is happening?
Do they understand who the candidates are?
With access, can they get out to vote? Is it easy for them to go cast their ballot? And impact, do they feel their vote will make a difference, either in the outcome of the actual election, or is it connected to things they care about?
And then community is, what are the people around me talking about?
So I think all of those really came into play, especially in the city of Greenville.

[3:26] With awareness, we had two competitive races, which is not always the case.
If anyone followed it, they know that this is now Mayor Knox White’s eighth term.
And for seven of those terms, he was, for the most part, uncontested.
He had a great candidate running against him in Michelle Shain.
There were signs everywhere, along with Dorothy Dow and Randall Fowler.
The city of Greenville is not a very big geographic area, so it was hard to avoid seeing tons of signs as you drove around, which made you know something’s going on.
Research shows that when a local election is partisan, it tends to drive higher turnout. And so the city of Greenville was the only local election that was partisan, and that might explain some of that really high turnout as well.

[4:12] With access, the access to early voting really changed people’s ability to go and cast a ballot.
So since COVID, you’ve heard on previous podcasts, if you’re a regular listener, South Carolina expanded early voting, and so for about two weeks you could go to County Square and to the different city halls within the county and vote early. 20% of people voted early in this election, which is really pretty astonishing.
And that really helped to drive turnout.

[4:39] With impact, do people feel their vote will make a difference in the outcome and in things they care about?
Because it was so obviously hotly contested, I think it really drove the sense of, there’s a real race here, and every vote really may count here because I’m seeing a pretty even number of signs for Dorothy Dow and Randall Fowler and for Michelle Shain and for Knox White. So my vote really will count.

[5:02] And then does it matter with things that I care about?

[5:06] We, as you know, Nathaniel, interviewed pretty much every single city council or mayoral candidate within Greenville County.
And I think every single one of them said they are worried about growth in this county and within their cities. I really think every single one. And that is something people are concerned about and that is something all of the candidates directly spoke to in their campaigning and so people felt like okay I’m really worried about the future of my city and these are the people who are going to help influence it, so my vote really does matter for something that impacts me directly, And then lastly, community, there was a lot of buzz.

[5:41] If you drove down your own street, you would see signs everywhere and you knew your neighbors were voting and so it summoned you to vote as well.
So I think those were some of the things that play in driving turnout, especially in the city of Greenville this year.
So when you think about what I just said regarding some of the other cities, it is interesting because there were contested races in all of those communities, except for Mauldin, which only Mark Steenback was actually on the ballot, but there was someone vying to have a write-in candidacy.

[6:10] But I think the more the word got out in those communities, more people were voting as well.
But hopefully, we’ll see better turnout in those municipalities in the future.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[6:18] So I think something that might confuse people who aren’t as civic savvy as you is, why do we vote in off years and not with the general election in even years when we’re picking president, governor, and the like?
Because you would think that’s a good time to get everyone to the ballot, get people to vote, increase that voter turnout.
So why do we do it this way instead of, you know, with the presidential or governor elections?

Katy Smith:
[6:45] So let me just say, that’s very kind of you to say I’m civics savvy.
I did not know, it kind of hit me like, wait a minute, why are we voting in the odd years? Like, what’s the benefit? What’s the negativity of that?
Maybe that’s why I can be helpful as a podcaster because I’m like, what don’t I know that other people might wanna know? So, across the nation, most of these municipal elections happen in off years, and people who support that idea say the benefit is that there is a focus only on that at the time.
So it doesn’t get diluted with who’s running for president and all of that messaging.
There’s more money to go to the candidates then because people aren’t giving their donations to the larger party candidates for president.
They’re able to focus on city council, mayoral races.
It’s easier for someone to get out and knock door to door because it’s not within the yucky stew of all the national partisan politics in those off years.
So there are a lot of advocates for it being this way.
The people who don’t support that would say so many more people will vote for city council if it is on the same ballot as a presidential candidate or a governor’s race.
Portland State University has a really interesting project called Who Votes for Mayor. And you can look it up at whovotesformayor.org.

[8:05] They looked at millions of voter records for cities that have off-year elections, and at the biggest cities in the United States, and found that turnout in America’s 10 largest cities for these municipal elections was less than 15%.
And among those, the median age of voters was 57 years old.
In fact, they found that people over 65 were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot for one of these municipal elections than those aged 18 to 34 years old.
So you’re clearly not getting a great representation of who’s in your city when turnout is that low.
And it then can affect policy decisions in my opinion.
This kind of made me think of when I’ve been working on transit in the past, and I really believe in the impact of our bus system and helping people get to work and healthcare and all the like.
And I met with a county council member who’s no longer on council, who complained that the buses were always empty.
And I thought, well, that’s not true. I mean, I’ve ridden the bus.
I’ve ridden the bus at 7:30, 8:30 in the morning, and it’s jam-packed with people going to work at Chick-fil-A, and to clean hotels, and going to factories, and manufacturing facilities.

[9:15] And I realized that this same person only wanted to meet with me after 9 in the morning so that they could have time to get up and get going and the roads wouldn’t be crowded.

[9:24] He was retired. And so his perspective about what’s going on is just different from someone who’s younger and leads a different kind of life So that’s just something to think about I think with elections. So in response to that some cities have moved their elections to those even years. Baltimore did this and saw a 60% voter turnout for those City Council elections which were on those other ballots when previously it was only 15%. And people who support this say it saves money, too, because you don’t have to run a separate election.

[9:57] Now, there is one more con to note, though, that when it is on a ballot that might have state House members, Senate candidates, the president, you know, all these other races… by the time people get to the end of the ballot, which is where those will be, they’re kind of tired and they’re not really paying much attention.
I’m sure you listening have had that where you’re like, oh, wait, who’s this? What does this mean? I didn’t know this was going to be on the ballot.
That’s what these important races could end up being if they’re at the end.
We also have so many people that vote straight party.
And if you punch a straight party ticket, if you are in one of the cities other than Greenville, which is a partisan race, these candidates aren’t a part of the party and you have to keep going, which some people don’t do once they hit straight party.
So, you know, it has pros and cons, a lot to think about. I would guess that most of the people who are on city councils here and who might run would oppose that because it really does give them an opportunity to get to know voters, which we certainly saw in this last race.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[10:55] I see benefits to doing it both ways, but one benefit I see and having the opportunity to sit here with every candidate is that it seems less political.
Like obviously it is political by nature because they’re running for an elected office, but they’re not associating themselves with the presidential candidate or with a cultural issue that might be going on or might be in, you know, popular at the moment.
So it’s tricky because if you go to doing it in the evening years, then I could just see being a lot more political and it was nice seeing genuine interest and like, here’s what I want to do for the community.
Not here’s the presidential candidate I’m gonna associate with to try to get your vote on election day.
So I feel like we for the podcast get a lot more genuine dialogue with that.

Katy Smith:
[11:42] I I agree with that and in fact, there’s an article in the Greenville News that came out this week, which is the week before Thanksgiving that looked at crossover voting and so it is very interesting that Knox White who ran as a Republican Won, and Dorothy Dow who ran as a Democrat won. Which means that the majority of voters crossed over in some way to choose people from each party. Meaning they were voting for them for what they believed they could do for their record for something other than I’m a Republican or I’m a Democrat.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[12:12] Yeah. Yeah. All right. So, you know now that we’ve talked about that and I’ve expressed my opinions on the pros and cons, is anyone thinking of reforming that system and to clarify thinking of reforming the off-year election system?

Katy Smith:
[12:28] Okay, so interestingly, there is some talk right now of reforming and consolidating municipal elections across the state to require them to be in the odd years and on only one of two days.
So in South Carolina, about 200 local elections were held this past November municipal election day.
But there are elections that happen all throughout the year, throughout the state.
And so Representative Brandon Newton, who’s a Republican from Lancaster, has said there’s a joke in South Carolina that every Tuesday there’s election in South Carolina, which means that people all over the state are being summoned to vote, that election commissions are having to get out the machines and do the voting, and It’s just a lot of cost and confusion. Especially if you are in a county like our county which has six municipalities. If each of them were voting on a different day, you lose that awareness, right because we were able to gin up awareness because as you’re driving throughout the county you’re like Oh look, there’s some signs in TR.
There’s some signs in Simpsonville. I’m seeing it on the local news.
If each of those voted randomly on May, April, September, it would be really, really hard to get voters to understand when am I supposed to pay attention.
So Representative Newton has filed a bill that would require the elections to all be on either a day in April or a day in November in those odd years.

[13:52] He says that this would help give confidence to a voter that they know when to go, they know it’ll all look the same, it will make running elections easier.
So we’ll see where that goes.
So it’s interesting that there is some reform underway, but it’s really focused on that odd year and consolidating dates.
So the bill is in a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee right now, and it would be taken up by the full Senate potentially in January of 2024.
All of that’s to say, we had really good turnout, especially in the city of Greenville in this election.
And I’m really proud of whatever part we were able to play and bringing interviews with candidates and putting information on the website for you to learn more before you went to vote.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[14:34] Yeah, it’s truly incredible the reach this podcast has had in multiple elections now.
And for these elections specifically, I mean, we’ve reached thousands of podcast listeners when we interviewed the candidates.
We reached thousands of people who visited the website where they can also get the transcripts and read what the candidates had to say.
And in some instances, like in Simpsonville, we reached every single person who voted, it looks like.

Katy Smith:
[15:02] Our numbers were comparable for the episode, listens as people who voted.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[15:06] That’s really cool. Yeah.

Katy Smith:
[15:07] That’s really great.

Nathaniel DeSantis:
[15:08] Yeah, it’s neat to have that impact and to help voters in that way.

Katy Smith:
[15:12] Yeah, for sure. Well, we are so grateful to all of you who listen, who really care about local government because it’s so important.
And I just want to say again how much we appreciate all of the people who ran for office.
It is a really tough job and it is an important job and so for everyone who raised their hand to serve, we really appreciate them and really appreciate those who joined us for the podcast to get to know all of you who listen.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

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