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Early turnout totals low at county voting sites

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Residents vote Wednesday at the Johnson County Courthouse. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Residents vote Wednesday at the Johnson County Courthouse. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Residents vote Wednesday at the Johnson County Courthouse. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Residents vote Wednesday at the Johnson County Courthouse. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

A group of five people sat in the back room of a library waiting to help voters cast their ballots, but were instead trying to stay awake by reading, talking, or browsing the internet on their phones.

The group had to find something to do because voters weren’t showing up to cast ballots early. By midafternoon one day last week at the Edinburgh Wright-Hageman Public Library vote center, 13 people had cast a ballot. But that number came with one caveat: four of those votes belonged to the poll workers, poll inspector Mark Henderson said.

Early voter turnout hasn’t been much stronger at other centers either leading up to next week’s primary election. Johnson County Clerk Sue Anne Misiniec, the county official in charge of organizing and running the local elections, used one word to describe early voter turnout: pitiful.

Misiniec had hopes of a 20 percent turnout in the primary before early voting began, but low voter totals so far have her just hoping to reach 10 percent.

Early voting started at the county courthouse April 8, and 589 people have been there to vote since. Including other vote centers set up around the county, about 1,100 residents have voted early with only a few days left until Election Day. By comparison, in 2012 about 4,500 voters cast their ballots early in the primary election.

The lack of high-profile races and voter apathy are the two main reasons for the low turnout so far in the primary, Misiniec said.

“I didn’t think there would be very much turnout at all,” Henderson said. “Most of the candidates are unopposed here, so I didn’t think we’d have very many people show at all.”

In the past, officials have seen the interest in early voting grow, with lines at centers on the weekends before Election Day. In the 2012 primary, about 20 percent of the overall total of voters cast their ballots before Election Day, which was the first election that vote centers were used in Johnson County. But the 2012 primary election was a presidential year, and Republicans were also choosing between Richard Lugar and Richard Mourdock for the U.S. Senate.

The last countywide primary election was in 2010 and about 9.5 percent of voters who cast a ballot did so early. Overall voter turnout reached 22 percent in that election.

But in that election voters were choosing candidates in several high profile races. In the race for an open sheriff seat, the top three candidates for the Republican nomination were separated by a few hundred votes, a new congressman had to be selected after Rep. Steve Buyer announced his retirement, and current commissioner Ron West ran against State Rep. Woody Burton.

This year, voters are casting ballots in a total of nine contested local, state and federal races.

The county has still been focusing on trying to open up more sites for early voting.

The county opened up four early voting sites last weekend at Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, the Trafalgar Public Library, Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria, and the county courthouse. Each of those locations was open for seven hours, but the sites only had only 98 people show up to vote. Misiniec was expecting about 100 people to vote per location.

And for the first time, the county also had early voting sites set up at three local retirement communities. Ninety-four people showed up to vote at Greenwood Village South Retirement Community one week ago. Misiniec had hoped for about 150 or 200 people to vote.

“Disheartened is a good adjective to use,” Misiniec said. “Everyone works so hard to put this election together and we have to expend certain funds whether we have five people or 1,000 people show up.”

No matter how many voters show up, the county still has to prepare the ballot, find and train poll workers and set up places to vote. Every vote center has at least five poll workers, who are paid about $150 for working the day, and the county also has to pay the workers at early voting sites.

But the number of vote centers is chosen by the county, and that is something that can be changed based on turnout. Before the election, county officials decided to open fewer vote centers because they expected a lower turnout than during the 2012 presidential election.

But since this is only the third election since the switch to vote centers, the county does not have much context to know how many centers are needed. The county can better evaluate how many vote centers are needed in the future after next year’s city elections are finished, which means vote centers would have been used in a countywide, municipal and presidential election.

The county could scale back the number of vote centers for a countywide election in the future based on low voter turnout and need this year. Or the county may increase the number of centers for the 2016 presidential election, which could draw a lot of interest due to an open presidential race, Misiniec said.

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