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    Low elections show how fractured local politics are

    This is the City Talk column by Bill Dawers, a longtime contributor to the Savannah Morning News.

    Voter turnout was less than 5% in last week’s special election to fill the Chatham County Commission District 2 seat formerly occupied by Larry “Gator” Rivers, who passed away in April

    It would be easy to beat up on voters for widespread apathy and on candidates for not getting more people to the polls, but the causes of the low turnout are more complex. The numbers are stark. The county’s awkward political geography meant that the 1,205 voters were spread across 18 precincts. According to the unofficial results, the precinct that votes at the Salvation Army led the way with 175 votes, with just more than 30 voting in advance. There are more than 3,200 registered voters in that precinct. 

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    The precinct that votes at Senior Citizens, Inc. has 377 registered voters, but only three of them turned out for the special election. Frontrunner Malinda Scott Hodge trounced runner-up David Tootle by a vote of 2 to 1. 

    The records indicate that there was just one registered voter in the Beach High School precinct, but that person did not vote. 

    When the dust settled, Hodge, who was one of three Democrats on the ballot, took about 43% of the vote, but she needed more than 50% to avoid a runoff. With the Democratic candidates splitting so much of the vote, Tootle earned a spot in the runoff with 27% of the vote. 

    Tootle had no party affiliation listed on the ballot, but he is the District 2 chairman of the Savannah Republicans. Tootle has filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s recent renaming of the former Calhoun Square to Taylor Square, in honor of Susie King Taylor

    In theory, a combination of factors should have led to strong public interest in the race. An elections official optimistically predicted turnout could be as high as 30%. 

    The runoff between Hodge and Tootle will be on Oct. 17, just three weeks before the general election on Nov. 7. Will turnout even reach 4%? 

    Ultimately, the extreme lack of interest in the race seems largely due to our fractured political structures, compounded by weak leadership from the Chatham County Commission. In addition to the unincorporated areas, Chatham County is divided into eight municipalities – Bloomingdale, Garden City, Pooler, Port Wentworth, Savannah, Thunderbolt, Tybee Island and Vernonburg. The various governments do not share a common election cycle, and even longtime residents sometimes struggle to understand who has power over what. 

    A decade or so ago, it seemed possible that Chatham County might be headed toward a consolidated local government similar to Macon and Bibb County, but the various municipalities now seem more divided than ever. The combined police department for Savannah and Chatham County demerged in 2017, and each year seems to bring fresh evidence of political rifts, like last year’s defeat of the TSPLOST referendum. 

    The various political divisions are especially problematic with the region facing a surge of development related to the Hyundai plant. The facility itself will be in Bryan County, but many of the workers will probably end up living in other counties, including Chatham, Effingham and Bulloch. 

    I am not advocating for a new push for a consolidated government – and such an effort would clearly fail in any case. 

    But leaders across Chatham County need to consider new calendars and new structures that will encourage rather discourage citizen engagement. 

    Bill Dawers can be reached via @billdawers on Twitter and CityTalkSavannah@gmail.com.

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