A new report that Georgia leads the South in voter turnout doesn’t tell the full story.

Last week, a host of local news outlets spotlighted a new Census Bureau study that found that 3.9 million Georgians–fully 52% of voting-age adults–cast ballots in the November midterm elections for the highest turnout in the South and the 13th-highest in the nation.

“Georgia records highest voter turnout in the South,” crowed a headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger celebrated the results in a press release, saying the data confirms that state election infrastructure is “strong, finding a balance between voter accessibility and election security that promotes high turnout.”

But is democracy in Georgia really so robust? Not considering what the report fails to mention: the widening chasm in turnout between federal elections, compared with state and local races. Only 20.7% of registered Atlanta voters cast a ballot for mayor in 2021, only about a third of the 59% who turned out to pick the president in 2020. 

What explains the enthusiasm gap?

“Think of the hype that goes into these presidential elections compared to the municipal elections,” says University of Georgia Professor Charles Bullock. In this case, “hype” refers to media attention, which has become increasingly focused on national and global stories. 

Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a 2018 book on the death of local voting: The Increasingly United States. He says the turnout divide is a symptom of the “nationalization” of people’s attention—not just here, but everywhere in America.

A generation or two ago, local and regional news sources—from community newspapers to network affiliates— made up most of voters’ political information diets. But due to the flattening effects of cable news and the internet, the physical boundaries of our communication are all but gone. As a result, Americans continue to drop local print and TV news sources for the world for national or partisan media. As these local news outlets shrink or die, the process accelerates.

“Americans pay much more attention to what’s happening in Washington, D.C. than they do in Atlanta,” Hopkins told Atlanta Civic Circle. “And so as we watch the drama of federal politics unfold and the national parties spending billions of dollars mobilizing and persuading voters—turnout is going up for those nationwide races.”

Another factor is growing partisanship. More voters these days are driven to turn out based on fear and hatred of the other party. For local elections in cities like Atlanta, where candidates all tend to be Democrats, according to Hopkins, there isn’t the “specter of partisan threat” motivating people. “Just as an Egg McMuffin is the same in any McDonald’s, America’s two major political parties are increasingly perceived to offer the same choices throughout the country,” Hopkins said. 

This disparity hasn’t always been the case.

Note: Data for the Presidential election turnout in Atlanta was only available for 2016 and 2020.

In 2001, 40% of Atlanta voters cast a ballot in the mayoral election won by Shirley Franklin, double the percentage turnout for the 79,000 or 20% of Atlantans who turned up in the mayoral election won by Andre Dickens twenty years later, in 2021. 

By contrast, over 122,000 Atlantans participated in the 1973 mayoral runoff election between the incumbent, Sam Massell, and Maynard Jackson, the ultimate victor. One factor that influenced those earlier elections, says Bullock, is the racial politics. Turnout was high when Jackson was vying to become the city’s first Black mayor against a white incumbent, Massell. “It’s a pattern, where you’d see much more turnout with Black and white candidates facing off,” says Bullock. 

In the 2020s, Atlanta voter turnout has sunk even lower–often into the single digits–in local contests like city council and school board races. For instance, turnout in the City Council District 3 special election in March 2019 was only about 7% percent and it was under 2% percent for the city’s September 2019 Board of Education District 2 special election. 

The problem is also stark in the suburbs. In April, less than 13% of voters (6,100) chose Mableton’s first-ever mayor, Michael Owens, in Cobb County, which is about the same as the percentage of South Fulton residents who selected controversial mayor Khalid Kamau in 2021. 

One reason for the low local turnouts is that the people most likely to vote are older homeowners. Renters and young people tend to stay home in local elections. The unfortunate irony of this, says Hopkins, is that individual votes matter much more in local races than national ones. It’s local communities and states that determine leadership and funding for schools, transportation, and criminal justice—areas which have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives.

Of every U.S. tax dollar, states and localities spend 48 cents. This month, the city of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools are about to vote to spend roughly $2.5 billion of local taxpayers’ money, including potentially more than $60 million alone on the proposed Public Safety Training Center, also known as ‘Cop City.’ Yet only about 18% of Atlanta’s voting-age population helped decide those issues.

What’s the answer?

A Knight Foundation study called “Why Millenial Voters Don’t Vote for Mayor,” suggests building local voting apps to better inform younger people, along with distributing information about local races at cultural and entertainment events in their cities. Celebrity endorsements for candidates in citywide races could also generate more interest. 

Ranked choice voting is another way to innovate how we elect mayors, Hopkins says, pointing to New York City as an example. The Manhattan Institute has suggested holding municipal elections concurrently with state and federal elections, which has increased turnout in cities like Austin, Texas. Turnout for Baltimore’s 2011 mayoral election was only 13% of registered voters, but that increased to 60% in 2016, when the city held its mayoral election simultaneously with the presidential election.

Local media also matters, through public or philanthropic investments to foster high-quality local news coverage that better informs voters.

Regardless, Georgians should look at the whole picture before we brag about our election turnout. 

What would make you more likely to vote in a local election? Tell us in the comments.

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1 Comment

  1. I would like to know much more about the $60 million of MY tax dollars that the City is spending on Cop City. So many aspects of it are objectionable, in my view, not the least of which is why it is being “stuck” in a neighborhood that doesnt want it and weren’t part of the decision process. Most of all, as relates to this article, i want to know exactly who on the City Council – past and present – voted yay or nay on this issue. Thank you

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