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Why was 'Pennies' voter turnout so low?

The distractions of summer. An off-year election. Voter apathy (or satiety).

These reasons might be why so few voted in Tuesday's referendum on "Pennies for Progress," York County's 1-cent sales tax for roads building. Despite poor turnout, community leaders say the emphatic victory for the Pennies program might mean it's more widely supported than ever.

On Tuesday, York County voters - at least those who went to the polls - overwhelmingly approved a third round of road-building projects. The county will continue its penny sales tax for seven more years, embarking on $161 million more in road improvements.

Though the Pennies referendum passed by a wider margin, with 82 percent voting in favor of the extension, turnout dropped to a low of 9 percent. That only 11,779 voters showed up Tuesday was a disappointment for some.

"It's hard to conceive that we couldn't get the word out, but there are people who didn't know," said Jerry Helms, who chaired the committee that selected the Pennies list and informed the public about what the program offers.

"I'm at a loss other than to think people were on vacation," he said. "Mentally, they were not thinking about an election. I ran into two people the day before the election and asked, 'Are you voting?' And they said, 'Voting on what?'"

Slow season

Holding the referendum in the middle of summer with nothing else on the ballot likely is one reason voter turnout was so low, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor who ended his vacation early to vote.

In 1997 and 2003, Pennies voters also decided on municipal elections. Voter participation was more than 23 percent in 1997 and 16 percent in 2003.

Political stories unfolding on the national level also are occupying people's minds, Huffmon said. When people are "consumed" by the nation's debt default situation and whether interest rates will rise, "they're not thinking about Pennies for Progress.".

Considering the circumstances, some say Tuesday's turnout was not so bad.

It was normal, said Rick Whisonant, a history and political science instructor at York Technical College.

In 2006, York County voters struck down a stand-alone bond referendum for $75 million to build or renovate the county jail and court facilities, libraries, customer service centers, a recycling center and cultural venues. Only 8.8 percent - or 9,250 voters - came out.

Tuesday's vote might not have been "good," Whisonant said, but "it's reality. That's the norm."

Apathetic or organized?

But poor voter turnout doesn't necessarily mean people don't care.

In 2006, 66 percent of voters said "no" to the building projects almost as emphatically as voters said "yes" to Pennies on Tuesday.

Opponents argued that the projects weren't necessary or that they should be paid for some other way. Supporters contended that so many opposed the measure because the county didn't educate residents.

Pennies passed easily Tuesday, with more than 8 in 10 voters supporting it. More than half of precincts reported at least 80 percent support, and 21 precincts reported at least 90 percent.

Precincts with the highest voter turnout, such as Rock Hill's Fewell Park and Laurel Creek, also cast the most ballots in favor - a trend that suggests communities were organizing support, Whisonant said.

The only apparent opposition to Pennies formed in southeast Rock Hill, where stormwater drainage issues, flooding and potholes are ongoing concerns for residents.

Melvin Poole, the Rock Hill NAACP president, organized a group to make phone calls, send out fliers, and reach out to businesses and churches to build opposition to Pennies, he said.

"I thought it would be a lot closer than that," Poole said Tuesday after the vote. "I thought we were getting the word out."

On Thursday, Poole said Pennies is a good program, but he and others wanted "to defeat Pennies and force the people to go back to the negotiating table and include areas that should not have been overlooked in the first place."

"We were not against Pennies. ... We were concerned that people were left out," he said.

Change in the law

Poor voter turnout, the cost of holding special elections and other logistical concerns moved state legislators to change the law. Future referendums must be held during general elections.

But given the success of Pennies, the outcome likely would have been similar in a general election, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican.

"I don't think that 82 percent turning out in August would mean it wouldn't pass in November," he said. "This wasn't even close."

All but six counties in the state pursue some type of sales tax imposed locally. The local tax options range in purpose from covering capital projects, school districts, education capital improvements, transportation, and even tourism development. Sixteen counties have more than one, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.

Pennies organizers have kept a narrow focus and avoided imposing more than a 1-cent sales tax. Instead, the program focuses on high-profile road projects that are likely to garner wide support, county leaders have said.

"For these initiatives to work, you've got to find what the majority feel impassioned about. For York County, that was congestion and traffic," said Phil Leazer, Pennies project manager. "That's what impassioned York County citizens to support the program for a third time in a row."

But voters weren't always convinced.

The first round of Pennies projects passed by only 222 votes. The second round, by 6,688. Aiken County's first try at passing a sales tax also was close because it was a "new tax" and voters were resistant, said Clay Killian, Aiken County administrator and former York County manager.

Aiken County successfully renewed its sales tax twice, like York, where a growing margin of support pleases program leaders, despite the low voter turnout.

Huffmon ties the trend to human nature.

"Humans ... don't like change. They tend to stick with a default position unless they have serious reason to change," he said.

Once they've adapted, it takes a lot to spur change again. Considering timing and the fact that the tax is nothing new, most people weren't paying that much attention, he said.

"One massive high-profile foul-up and malfeasance, and next time might be different."