By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
Of the eight candidates vying in four countywide local races on last Tuesday’s runoff ballot, only one — Republican circuit clerk nominee Lisa Parker McSwain — was able to hold onto the first-place finish she’d earned in the March 13 primary.
The rest all watched as the votes were counted at the Cullman civic center Tuesday evening, where the leads they held only six weeks ago vanished.
Kenneth Walker swapped places with incumbent James Graves, winning the county commission chairman’s seat. Martha Williams did the same, overtaking Steve Smith for the Place 2 circuit judgeship. Tammy Brown soundly beat Bridgette Reeling Warner, who’d finished the March primary with a slight advantage.
Even among the eight precinct locations where the Cullman County School Board’s District 1 seat appeared on the ballot, candidate Forrest McCullar closed a massive gap between himself and Gene Sullins, who’d nearly avoided a runoff in March with 49 percent of the vote. Sullins went on to win the seat Tuesday, but only by 164 votes — far closer than the 575-vote margin separating him from McCullar March 13.
Cullman County voters cast 8,499 ballots in Tuesday’s runoff election. That’s a turnout of 18 percent from among the county’s 46,700 registered voters — and far off the 42 percent who showed up to vote last month.
According to Cullman County Republican party chair Ken Brown, Democratic crossover voting played a significant role in switching the order in which his most of his party’s candidates finished Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, tonight’s results do reflect the ability of local Democrats to crossover vote in our Republican election process and affect the outcome in some races,” said Brown.
“We hope to remedy this before the next primary election in 2014, by having Alabama join more than 20 other states in moving to voter registration by party, and closed primaries. Then, Democrats will be free to pick their own nominees — and we will be free to choose ours without interference.”
Holding ‘closed’ primaries would prevent voters of either party, who voted in their party’s primary election, from participating in a subsequent runoff involving the other party. The Alabama Democratic party already has a version of a ‘crossover rule’ in place that forbids Republican primary voters from participating in a Democratic primary runoff.
While it’s impossible to know what proportion of Tuesday’s ballots were cast by members of either party, some other trends can be measured — even if their meaning is open to interpretation.
Looking at the returns one precinct at a time, it’s hard to detect any numeric patterns that reflect a disproportionate turnout in one part of the county versus another. Voting numbers were down throughout the county, but as a rule, the numbers fell further and further beneath the bar set by the March 13 primary at rural precincts farther and farther from the City of Cullman.
In general, most east-side precincts suffered slightly less dropoff in voter turnout than did their counterparts on the south and west sides of the county.
But, there were exceptions on both sides.
At the Joppa volunteer fire department, for example, 212 people voted in the March 13 primary, but only 48 showed up all day Tuesday to cast a ballot in the runoff. In addition, Holly Pond, Walter, Gold Ridge and Baileyton — to name a few — all managed less than 50 percent of the turnout the east-side precincts enjoyed last month.
On the west side, though, Baldwin’s community center precinct — along with precincts at West Point, Battleground, Bethel and Bethsadia — all received slightly more than half the voter activity they experienced in March.
Voter interest in the county’s southern precincts fell the most, with numbers drastically lower at Hanceville, Dodge City, Colony, Crane Hill and Cold Springs.
Leah Patterson Lust, who — besides running as an incumbent in this fall’s race for probate judge — is responsible for conducting elections in Cullman County and overseeing the ballot-counting process, said Tuesday it’s hard to know whether low voter numbers played a role in the unforeseen outcome of local runoff races. But, regardless of who Tuesday’s winners were, Lust said the low voter representation is disappointing.
“It’s somewhat disappointing that we only had approximately 18 percent of the registered voters in Cullman County turn out for the vote, and you really want to see people taking advantage of the privilege we have to exercising one of our most cherished freedoms,” said Lust.
“So far, as a candidate, I haven’t been affected, because my name hasn’t been on the ballot. But a low turnout affects everyone who’s worked so hard to communicate their message to the people, and it can affect all of us, really, if only a few of us are compelled to go to the polls and vote, and to make these kinds of important decisions.”
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.