Low voter turnout in Putnam primary

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Action at precinct polling places went smoothly Tuesday, county officials say, despite what many agree was a disappointingly low voter turnout.

A total of 3,792 voters cast ballots in Putnam County for the May primary election, representing only 16.07 percent of registered voters.

"I was disappointed that turnout was so low," Clerk of Putnam Circuit Court Opal Sutherlin said. "But then this election always is. I was hoping for 30 percent (of registered votes), but I only got 16 (percent)."

She said she expects the contested race for sheriff between Republican incumbent Mark Frisbie and Democrat Tom Helmer to bring more voters out for the fall election.

For those who came to the polls Tuesday, things went off without many hitches.

Greencastle's First North precinct was first to report its ballots, at shortly after 6 p.m.

"We hoped to be out of here by 8 or 8:15 p.m., and we beat that by an hour," Sutherlin said of tallying the votes. "We had 28 (of 29) precincts in by 7:15 p.m. and that is a record."

Last to report was Cloverdale 3 precinct. Sutherlin said the hold-up had to do with a discrepancy in the voting log.

"We had one more vote in the machines than on the poll books," she said.

Even the new requirement that voters show photo identification didn't seem to slow the process down. The clerk said she only had a few phone calls from inspectors asking about forms of I.D.

"We had two or three that were questionable, and that was because their addresses on their I.D. didn't match what was in the log, but it didn't have to match," Sutherlin said.

She said she had one report of a person who went to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch, got photo identification, then returned to their precinct to vote.

At the Floyd East precinct, where some people had experienced hours-long waits to cast votes during the November 2004 presidential election, voting inspector Gretna Huber said things went much more smoothly this time.

"We were constantly busy just about from 8:30 a.m on," Huber said. "But we only had about four or five times where people were waiting to vote. It was mild compared to 2004, very very mild."

She said the new photo identification requirement didn't seem to slow the voting process at her precinct either.

"Everyone was patient and positive with their ID cards," Huber said of the Floyd East polls. "Most people came in and said, 'That's a good idea.'"

This is Sutherlin's eighth year in office and Tuesday marked her second-to-last election.

"This has been the best election," she said. "Everyone knew their job and worked hard."

She said much of the success for the day's election had to do with the support she had.

"I owe a lot of thanks to my deputy Kathy Evans and to the people who work behind the scenes in the election room," she said. "A lot of people don't know what goes on in that election room."

Namely, she said, Carl Singer, who runs the technical side of voting operations, and service technicians from voting technology company MicroVote were to thank.

"(MicroVote) sent extra help to troubleshoot, and I believe our contract had expired for them to provide that kind of service," she said.

Meanwhile, although no firm numbers were available, Sutherlin said much more Republicans cast ballots than Democrats.

However, members of both parties had a lot to say about election results.

Chairman of the Republican Party in Putnam County Jerry Ensor said he was disappointed by the percent of registered voters who showed at the polls.

"People didn't take the time to go and vote," he said. "I just can't imagine staying home on election day."

Members of both parties agreed the message from the primary may have been that Putnam County voters are ready for change.

The Putnam County Commissioner's race primarily illustrated that point, as Jim Baird upset incumbent and fellow Clinton Township resident Dennis O'Hair for the Republican spot on the ballot.

"I think people are weary right now," Ensor said. "They think change might make it better. Well, we don't know that, but in four years we will find out because we are going to have a new commissioner."

The Republican said he has plenty of confidence in the Putnam County GOP slate for November.

"I think we will be in good shape for the fall," he said with a wink. "I predict we will win every office in the county -- although that may be wishful thinking."

Dave Bohmer is chairman of the Democratic Party in Putnam County, which had no contested races in the primary.

He said he hopes to find more candidates to fill the ballot for the Nov. 7 election.

"We have two very good candidates for the fall, with Russ Evans (for County Commissioner) and Tom Helmer (for Sheriff)," he said. "If we can find other good candidates before the deadline, we will fill those."

As for Tuesday's election, he agreed voters seemed to want a transition in county government.

"I think from the vote today, we can (infer) people are ready for a change," he said. "And I support that wholeheartedly."

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