Election 2016

I voted sticker. Brad Nettles/Staff

By Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier

Voter turnout for state primary elections in South Carolina is abysmal. 

In 2014, just 16 percent of South Carolina's registered voters cast a ballot.

In the tri-county area of Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, it was even worse.

Only 14 percent of registered voters participated, according to election data.

And that represents the turnout for the partisan Democrats and Republicans — those who are supposedly the most interested in party politics.

The League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area is on a mission to change that, not only for the June 12 primary less than 40 days away but also for all the races far down the ballot heading toward the general election in November.

While the governor's race continues to get all the glory at the top of the ticket this season, the nonpartisan group argues local races are where voters can effect the most change.

"Think about what touches your life every day," said Barbara Griffin, co-president of the local league.

"Whether it's that stoplight that has been put in that intersection that isn't working or whether it's making sure students are getting a good education, there are endless things that are largely decided on a local level," she said.

Voters often leave these local nonpartisan races blank if they vote straight ticket for either all Republicans or all Democrats, like almost half of South Carolina voters did in the 2016 general election. It's why keeping down-ticket races top of mind is part of the local league's strategy to foster a more engaged electorate.

The group is holding voter registration drives, urging people to participate in forums and offering comprehensive voter guides that will be published online at VOTE411.org.

The local league used the website last year, but this is the first time it is attempting to work with other chapters across the state to make the site a one-stop shop for all South Carolina voters for all the hundreds of candidates on the ballot from the mountains to the coast. 

Questionnaires were sent to candidates on Tuesday. The league plans to update the website as it receives responses. The resource will be available through the general election this November. Questions have been tailored to each race.

Governor candidates, for example, will be asked if they would change the redistricting process so that elections are more competitive and fair.

County council candidates in the tri-county area will be asked about their solutions to address traffic congestion, along with their thoughts on providing incentives to those who carpool.

Candidates can choose to take part or not, but the league says it is not afraid to leave spaces blank if a candidate opts not to participate.

The league's push comes as voters have until May 13 to register in time to vote in the primary elections. To learn more about how to register to vote, visit scvotes.org.

But getting people to engage in the voting process is a very real challenge.

A knowledge and money gap

Partly to blame for low interest in the process is the hyper-partisan nature of politics today and the struggle to learn about races that are not battling for the attention of party loyalists.

College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts points to the dramatic difference between the attention given to a presidential candidate and a school board candidate as an example.

Though tri-county school board members serve as advocates for some 113,000 public school children, voters won't see any campaign ads for the race on their TV screens at night.

Candidates, he said, just can't afford such a big media buy in these small races.

"For president, you're bombarded with information and ads and stories for two years. It's hard not to know what the major candidates stand for," he said. "But with a race like school board, that candidate may only be able to afford to send one mailer. It might just be a postcard."

And then, there's the voter population itself. In the Lowcountry, it just keeps growing.

More people, more voters

Joe Debney, director of Charleston County's Board of Elections and Voter Registration, said getting people up to speed on voter registration is a priority that has only increased as the tri-county population swells.

From 2010 until mid-2016, more than 60,000 people moved to Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties from other states, according to U.S. Census figures. 

Most arrive cold to the candidate names, local issues and positions those seeking office hold. 

There are more than 3.2 million registered voters in the Palmetto State, according to Marci Andino, executive director of the State Election Commission.

To keep up with demand, Debney said his office decided a few years ago to dedicate an entire staff position to voter outreach, which includes voter registration, updating voter information and informing people about photo ID requirements.

Outreach Coordinator Sandra Campbell said the office hosted one event in 2013 that reached 120 attendees.

"In 2017, as of the close of December, we had reached or done that voter outreach with 18,327 people," she said this week, noting another 49 events are scheduled for this year. Sometimes those events happen alongside league efforts. 

But the league can't do it alone, Griffin said.

"It always works a little better when everybody feels invested in this work," she said.

In many ways, though, the league's latest push is a nod to the history of the League of Women Voters itself. The group was founded on Valentine's Day in 1920 ahead of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after a 72-year fight.

The Charleston-area chapter has been serving the tri-county area for 71 years and hopes to be just as influential in 2018. 

"For us, this push to constantly be registering people, helping them learn about both the issues and the candidates and getting them to vote — that doesn't change after the primaries. This is our core," Griffin said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.