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Local elections have consequences (and not just in Greenville)

Did you? And do you plan to do it again on Nov. 7? Many, across the political spectrum, hope you do in this 'off-year election season.
Parker Johnson
Did you? And do you plan to do it again on Nov. 7? Many, across the political spectrum, hope you do in this 'off-year election season.

"Do you normally vote in local elections?"

It’s the question I asked voters in Greenville while on a campaign door-knock outing with Democratic candidates and party members a couple weeks ago.

Encouragingly for the entourage, most people (in a pool of specifically Democratic voters whose record doesn’t always reflect a regular visit to the polls), most everyone said they do vote in local elections.

Some, like Peggy Sanders, do it because “our grandmama taught us to;” others, like Sarah Reese, say they do it because it makes them feel proud – and because they can’t stomach the thought of not weighing in on what happens in their neighborhood, city, and county.

And so it would be easy to get the impression that registered voters are keen to go out and cast their ballots in local races.

But numbers don’t lie.

In Greenville, in 2021’s general election – the most recent local-only race in the county – 13.27 percent of registered voters in the county went to the polls. In the 2022 primaries, when the governor and a U.S. Senate seat were on the ballot, 17 percent of Greenville’s eligible voters showed up.

That’s pretty much the state average, which was just shy of 17 percent in the 2022 primaries.

So it would also be easy to conclude that local-only elections – for seats on city councils, county councils, water commissions, public works commissions, and the like – don’t have much appeal for voters.

Is that true? Is it that voters don’t care about local races?

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that people don’t care,” says Richard Almeida, a political science professor at Francis Marion University. “People definitely care. I think there are things about American elections in general, and maybe ... local elections in particular, that work against the care and interest in ways that pose some disincentives and barriers that probably aren't intentional.”

Disincentives like elections being held on Tuesdays, Almeida says; having to register to vote so far in advance; the presence of so many elections, multiple times a year; distance to polls (which, on Tuesdays especially, can be a problem because a lot of people don’t work where their polling places are and it might be a few hours they can’t spare from the job).

Yes, there are absentee ballots, but not everyone understands how to get them, much less use them correctly.

Yes, there is early voting – which for the 2023 November General Election runs until Nov. 3 – but that almost always requires a trip to the county seat, and that can be several miles away from where some voters live.

Plus, say some members of the Greenville County Republican Party, people don’t necessarily understand the stakes of local elections.

Take water commissioners.

“A lot of people don't even think about a water commissioner,” says Joe Dill, vice chair of the Greenville County GOP and a former County Council member. “But that guy or lady has something to do with your everyday life.”

Which is the point local politicos, regardless of their stripes or pedigrees or allegiances, want to hammer home – local elections matter.

A lot.

Like, a whole lot. Look back over the news for the past year or two and you’ll see how many stories involve fights over issues like library books or school curricula. Local boards and commissions make consequential decisions for communities they serve and, says Dill, affect policy up to the federal level.

“It goes uphill from here,” he says.

In addition to Greenville City Council – where Republican Knox White is facing a Democratic challenger, Michelle Shain, for the first time in decades for the mayor’s seat – there are hundreds of local elections happening in every county in South Carolina on Nov. 7.

Click HERE to see a list of elections.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.