John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Local Elections Matter

posted on in City & County Government

Last week, I wrote about the local option sales tax referendum that was coming up in Jackson County.  Yesterday, voters went to the polls, and they voted for the tax increase pretty decisively – 64%.

But that was 64% of those who voted.  Yesterday was, of course, a weird second round of primaries due to the dispute over congressional district lines and the method of electing Supreme Court justices.  There were very few races on the ballot, and most of those weren’t big, exciting races that got a lot of media attention.  As expected, turnout was low.  In Jackson County, just 11% of voters turned out, which means that just 7% of registered voters cast ballots for the sales tax increase (1795 for, 1030 against).  100% of voters will pay for it.

I’m forced to ask whether the county chose to hold the election yesterday precisely because they knew that turnout would be low.  Statewide it was under 8%.  I took a look back at local option sales tax referenda since 2007.  Most have been on the same ballot as a November general election.  Smaller numbers have been on spring primary ballots.  A very small number have been on these sorts of special election ballots.  But those in the latter category have been far more successful than those on general election and primary ballots.  I suspect that’s because, in an election like yesterday’s, the people most likely to actually get out and vote are that small group whose particular pet issue in on the ballot.

  General Election Primary Election Special Election
Total number of referenda 70 33 9
Passed 16 (23%) 7 (21%) 7 (78%)
Did not pass 54 (77%) 26 (79%) 2 (22%)

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing the result is illegitimate.  All of those voters could have voted.  They chose not to, and thereby deferred to the few who went to the polls.  That may be unfortunate, but it’s absolutely legitimate.

There were several other local issues on ballots.  In similar fashion, all passed on very low turnout.

  • Cherokee County also had a quarter cent sales tax referendum.  It passed with 65% of the vote, but on a turnout of only 7% (1088 for, 575 against).
  • The City of Lincolnton voted to lift restrictions on the sale of beer by small pubs and bars that don’t sell a minimum amount of food.  It passed with 80% of the vote on turnout of 5% (486 for, 120 against).

And alcohol was also on the ballot all over Randolph County, where turnout was around 6%.

  • Ramseur voted to allow an ABC store (71 for, 50 against).
  • Seagrove voted to allow sales of unfortified wine (67 for, 40 against) and beer (65 for, 39 against).
  • Franklinville voted to allow sales of mixed beverages (43 for, 36 against), unfortified wine (47 for, 33 against), and beer (42 for, 36 against).

Numbers like these always serve to remind me of the importance of local elections.  Millions of people vote in presidential elections, making it pretty unlikely that my one vote is going to make much difference either way.  But these were tight, some coming down to just six or seven votes.  And yet they impact thousands of people – anyone who wants to get a drink at a bar, entrepreneurs who want to start small businesses, and the people who pay sales tax day in and day out.  The impact is direct and significant.  Small, local elections matter.

Julie Tisdale is City and County Policy Analyst at the John Locke Foundation. Before coming to the Locke Foundation, she worked at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India, where she wrote about various economic and public policy… ...

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