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Wilson County has a profound local-level civic engagement problem.
There is no other conclusion that can be drawn from Tuesday night’s election returns. Just 6.81 percent of eligible voters — 1,585 people of 23,585 who could cast a ballot — bothered to vote in city council and town board contests.
Compare that with participation in last November’s general elections when presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races were decided. Last year, Wilson County boasted 67.7 percent turnout, with 38,313 out of 56,574 registered voters participating.
Turnout is always higher in presidential elections than off-year municipal contests. But participation below 7 percent isn’t just low. It’s shockingly and embarrassingly low.
Wilson County Elections Director Rená Morris was almost at a loss for words.
“Obviously, you want to vote for whomever is going to representing you and making decisions for what is going on in your city,” Morris told Times reporter Drew C. Wilson. “I don’t know what the answer is. I just wish that we would see a larger turnout in these municipal elections.”
We’re not sure what the answer is either. But it’s time to start asking the questions.
Why didn’t more people take advantage of the 13-day early voting period or come out on Election Day? Several readers commenting on The Wilson Times’ Facebook page cited a lack of publicity and general awareness in the community.
“I’m new to the area and wasn’t aware of an election,” Amanda Sozio Bajek wrote.
“Need more coverage on the candidates and candidates need to reach out to (the) public as well,” offered James Carlone.
“I’ve not seen much campaigning/advertising,” Sara Nottingham Garris noted.
“I didn’t vote because there was one name on my ballot. But I also had a really difficult time even finding that name,” wrote Shelly Gibson. “There needs to be an easier way to find out who is on your ballot and write-ups for what each candidate supports.”
The Wilson Times takes seriously its responsibility to inform prospective voters ahead of each election. We’ve featured front-page stories alerting readers to candidate filing and voter registration deadlines, and updates on the first day of early voting and the day before Election Day. We’ve published the list of every candidate listed on Wilson County residents’ ballots, and we also mailed candidate surveys and published the responses we received.
On Oct. 5, the Times hosted a Wilson County candidate forum at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. Every hopeful who filed paperwork with the Board of Elections received an invitation in the mail. The first half-hour was a meet-and-greet allowing candidates and voters to connect, and the final 90 minutes was reserved for a moderated question-and-answer session for Wilson City Council candidates.
The newspaper can and should do more. But given the extensive pre-election coverage we provided, subscribers and regular readers must have known there were local elections on Tuesday.
What else can be done to ramp up interest and awareness of city- and town-level races?
Are there nonpartisan groups that would be willing to organize and sponsor public forums, debates and meet-the-candidate events? If not, would the leadership of Wilson County’s Democratic and Republican parties be willing to co-host such events with assurances that moderators will be neutral and members of each party will receive equal time? Municipal races here are officially nonpartisan, but most candidates belong to one of the two major parties.
Some voters cited a lack of choices in contests where incumbents ran unopposed. Why didn’t more people choose to throw their hats into the ring? Is the process too unfamiliar and intimidating? What can local institutions do to educate prospective candidates and encourage participation?
The Times is committed to supporting local-level democracy in Wilson County. We want to be part of the solution. But it will take a broader cross-section of the community than a handful of reporters, editors and advertising sales representatives to drum up genuine interest in the candidates, elections and issues.
Anyone with ideas and suggestions to improve voter participation is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Responses will be published and discussed in future editorials.
We applaud those who took the time to vote. Criticizing or shaming those who didn’t would be counterproductive. Instead, we want to engage Wilson County residents who passed on the chance to participate. What can we as a community do to help get you to the polls next year?
Wilson County can do better than sub-7 percent turnout. Let’s work together to make local elections matter to more of our neighbors.