Low voter turnout expected for SC runoff elections

ccope@thestate.comJune 23, 2014 

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • No lines at the polls?

    Runoff races historically have drawn fewer voters than primaries. And most analysts expect very low turnout in Tuesday’s runoffs.

    16 percent of S.C. voters turned out for the June 10 Democratic and Republican primaries

    17 percent of S.C. voters turned out for the 2006 primaries

    7 percent of S.C. voters turned out for the 2006 GOP-only primary runoff

The candidates are battling more than just each other in Tuesday’s runoff races. Fighting voter apathy, their biggest challenge will be getting supporters to the polls.

Voter turnout for the June 10 primary two weeks ago was low. Only about 16 percent of registered S.C. voters went to the polls — the lowest turnout for a primary with statewide offices in the past 16 years.

Historically, turnout for runoffs has been even lower.

The statewide runoff races on Tuesday’s ballot — the GOP race for lieutenant governor, and Democratic and Republican races for superintendent of education — don’t help, said University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins. “Neither of these races are the sort of race that would quicken the heart of an ordinary voter.”

Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan agreed.

“(Candidates are) pretty much looking at (their) friends and neighbors and extended family showing up for the runoff,” he said.

However, voter interest could be higher in Lexington County, where longtime GOP incumbent Bill Banning faces a runoff challenge from Ned Tolar for the District 8 seat on Lexington County Council.

The GOP race for lieutenant governor pits Columbia businessman Mike Campbell against former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, also of Columbia. McMaster received 44 percent of votes in the June 10 primary and Campbell received 24 percent.

The Republican education superintendent candidates on Tuesday’s runoff ballot, Sally Atwater of Charleston and Molly Spearman, both received 22 percent of votes in the primary, with Spearman narrowly claiming first place by less than 1,000 votes.

Even though the GOP superintendent’s race was tight, voter interest still could dwindle Tuesday. “My gut tells me most people just don’t care,” Buchanan said.

Only one runoff race will be on the Democratic statewide ballot. In the June 10 primary, Sheila Gallagher of Florence received 36 percent of votes for superintendent and Tom Thompson of Forest Acres received 26 percent.

Buchanan predicted voter turnout will be in the single-digits overall.

That happened in 2006, when about 7 percent of voters cast ballots in that June’s runoff. That runoff is similar to Tuesday’s because it had a lieutenant governor’s race on the ballot but no candidates for governor. Generally, governor’s races — or runoffs — draw more voters.

In 2006, voter turnout dropped nearly 10 percentage points from the roughly 17 percent of voters who had cast ballots in the primary. However, there was no statewide Democratic race on the runoff ballot that year.

“(Tuesday) we’ve got statewide runoffs on both sides,” said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state Election Commission. “The potential is there for it to be not as much of a drop-off because the pool of voters is the same.”

Absentee ballots, an indicator for turnout, were much lower for Tuesday’s runoff than the 39,400 absentee ballots cast in the June 10 primary. By Monday afternoon, only 23,704 absentee ballots had been issued for the runoff and 11,246 had been returned.

The gap between absentee ballots issued and returned is due to the short, two-week period that voters have to receive and return their absentee ballots between the primary and runoff, Whitmire said.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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