Why you should care
Because the stories of counties like these will decide who is president of the United States.
Trying to talk to election officials in Chattahoochee County is like trying to catch a greased pig.
But at least the pig has an excuse for not responding to emails.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. For me, or for the voters here.
The southwest Georgia county is small and rural, but not that small or rural. Roughly 10,000 people reside here, just a half-hour south of Columbus, the state’s second-largest city. The education rate is slightly below the state average. The poverty rate, slightly above.
Which all suggests that, based on factors that typically affect turnout rates, Chattahoochee should be right around the middle-of-the-pack in terms of voting in Georgia.
Yet just 13 percent of Chattahoochee residents turned out to vote in 2018, and the county has had America’s lowest turnout in the past four elections.
The figures come from an exclusive OZY voter participation analysis with Washington, D.C.-based data and consulting firm 0ptimus. Last year’s dismal result came despite a highly competitive governor’s race that drew national headlines. And it had an abysmal low of 8 percent turnout in 2014.
As part of our 2020 election coverage, OZY has set out to pinpoint the most politically activated communities in the country — and the least. Counties like these are where the next president of the United States will be chosen in an election that is likely to hinge on who can best turn out their supporters.
With that in mind, I set out to discover why Chattahoochee had such disproportionately low turnout. What were local leaders doing to turn things around? What was holding residents back from engaging in their civic duty?
I began by emailing election officials but got no response. I tried calling a half-dozen times but was shifted between three county departments over a period of a week, with each claiming the other was responsible for running elections.
At first, I thought the problem was me. And so I drove to Chattahoochee, walked into the county Superior Court and introduced myself as a reporter trying to learn more about the county’s election efforts. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to be blocked harder than any high school lineman.
The clerk, who said she ran the operational side of the elections and “they run fine,” refused to answer any questions. When I asked to talk to James McGlaun, the county judge and elections supervisor, she said he was busy. I asked her if I could set up an appointment. She then went into the courtroom, came back and told me he “declined my request for an interview” and that I could email if I had questions — handing me the same email address where he had already ignored me multiple times.
There are plenty of reasons outside poor management why Chattahoochee may struggle with voting. The area is a food desert, with few restaurants or fresh grocery stores, and in general, lacks communal gathering places outside a single library. Even the community center that advertised itself as open was closed in the middle of a weekday. As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone, a lack of communal spaces and organizations can lead to a loss of civic engagement. One interesting comparison is Oconee County, which, like Chattahoochee, is in rural Georgia near a larger city … but regularly has some of the highest voter turnouts in the state. “There is a long history that has slowly built over time,” says Brian Brodrick, a Watkinsville city council member in Oconee. “What we try to hold onto is this civic fabric — rotary clubs, service-oriented groups, churches.”
The biggest geographic factor for Chattahoochee may be the presence of nearby Fort Benning. “My hunch is that there are so many military personnel there,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. Some may be deployed during elections, despite listing their address in the county, and even those who are in town may still vote absentee in their home states. “There is plenty of time if you want to have a ballot sent to you,” he says. “But probably a lot of soldiers don’t think about that. They’ve got other things on their mind.”
Still, there are plenty of other counties with military bases, plenty that struggle with resources yet have much higher voter participation rates. “There are a lot of counties that would score much more worse on those dimensions,” Bullock says.
Covering the 2016 election and visiting all 50 states in 2017, I never encountered anything like this level of resistance to releasing basic voting information, whether it was a big city or a small town. In fact, most smaller places were eager to share how they were trying to engage people, not determined to avoid accountability.
Deciding to give it one last jab, I drove across town to the local government offices, where six county commissioners smiled at me from their portraits on the wall. These were public officials, whose job was to answer to residents, and journalists like myself. Surely they would talk?
The secretary, a friendly woman, apologized nicely, saying that the county’s technology was outdated so I couldn’t email them — but I could physically mail them my questions. I asked if I could just leave her a message for them. I filled out a Post-it note with my contact information, and asked, “So you’ll call them and pass this on?” Her response: “Actually, what I’ll do is write out six copies of this and place it in each of their mailboxes.”
You’ll be shocked to find out that my mailbox is still empty two months later. If a political reporter has this much trouble navigating the county’s election system, what hope does an ordinary citizen have?