An anemic turnout Tuesday for Muskogee’s municipal elections sparked discussions about voter apathy and the failure to engage residents in the political process.
Voter turnout ranged from a low of 5.99 percent — 289 of 4,824 registered voters — in Ward III to a high of 8.44 percent in Ward IV, where 423 of the district’s 5,010 voters cast ballots. Citywide turnout for the four City Council ward contests averaged 6.32 percent, with just 1,317 of Muskogee’s 20,847 registered voters exercising their right to vote.
Tuesday’s overall voter participation rate was the lowest recorded for a municipal general election since the turn of the century. Turnout for the 2002 general election was slightly higher with 7 percent of registered voters casting ballots for a single contested ward seat.
Many of those who supported a 2012 ballot measure restricting votes cast for ward representatives to voters residing within a candidate’s district predicted increased electoral participation. But the first test of ward voting in Muskogee may have proven that argument false.
Ward I Councilor David Jones, who was elected to a third term with overwhelming support from his district, said he is “very unhappy” about Tuesday’s low voter turnout. Jones, a vocal opponent of ward voting, blamed the abolishment of at-large voting for ward representatives for poor participation rates.
“We have to have better participation than what we had. There are too many big things happening here in Muskogee, and we need people involved in that,” Jones said after ballots were tallied Tuesday night. “I think we have to address this ward voting — I think it would be a better turnout if we had at-large elections.”
Muskogee County Election Board Secretary Kelly Beach discounted that argument to a degree. Election board workers fielded calls from some voters who appeared to be turned off by the fact they would be unable to vote for a friend or acquaintance because of their address, but Beach said determining the impact of ward voting on turnout will take time.
“I don’t know that one election is going to prove or disprove that — we are going to have to take in at least one more election if not two or three more to see if that is a factor,” Beach said. “I don’t think this is a good sampling to ... answer that question.”
Beach said low voter turnout more likely was caused by the absence of a mayoral race and any substantial controversy to spark voter interest. He said a large transient population may drive down turnout because the people who make up that segment have no vested interest in local government.
Cedric Johnson, a retired Muskogee educator, two-time City Council candidate and ward-voting advocate, shared Beach’s conclusions regarding a mayoral contest and controversy. But he included in his assessment the fact that Muskogee has a fairly high poverty rate approaching 24 percent.
“I think the people are economically depressed and politically depressed,” Johnson said. “They are saying: ‘Why should we make this effort? Nothing is going to change, so we’ll just sit back and see what happens.’”
Regardless of the reason, Johnson said efforts must be made to spur participation in the electoral process. There is a need, he said, to “do a better job of teaching government and history in our schools.”
“That has something to do with people in our community who are not exercising their right to vote or doing their civic duty,” said Johnson, recalling the hardships South African voters overcame when they elected Nelson Mandela president. “Here in America all you have to do is get up and crawl on down to the polls and vote, and we don’t do it — but we can definitely complain.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muskogee City Council general election turnout since 2000:
Year Ballots Turnout
2000 4,970 19 percent
2002 1,704 7 percent
2004 2,698 11 percent
2006 5,153 21 percent
2008 3,758 15 percent
2010 4,925 19 percent
2012 3,709 17 percent
2014 1,317 6.32 percent
Source: Muskogee County
Voter turnout by ward in 2014:
Ward Ballots Turnout
Ward I 359 7.14 percent
Ward II 246 4.11 percent
Ward III 289 5.99 percent
Ward IV 423 8.44 percent
Total 1,317 6.32 percent
Source: Muskogee County