Where People Vote In The Purchase And Pennyrile — And Why
77-year-old Sidney Milton of Marshall County remembers the first time she ever voted. The year was 1960. She said she walked into her polling station, inside a car dealership in downtown Mayfield, when she was 18.
“I remember being really excited. I remember going into the little voting booth, and we had to mark your ballot and all that kind of stuff, and then go ahead and drop it into the box,” Milton said. “And then it was time to elect a president. And I got to vote my very first time for JFK.”
Since then, she’s voted in every single election including primaries -- except for one.
“That flu got me,” she said with a laugh. “That’s about the only way that I as an individual can express my opinion about the way things are going.”
It isn’t just Milton who consistently votes in the Purchase and Pennyrile regions. An analysis of state board of elections data shows several counties including Marshall, Carlisle and Ballard, over the past five general elections consistently have some of the highest voter turnouts in the state, among people of voting age.
Some of the people who see this turnout first-hand are county clerks throughout Kentucky, who run elections at the local level.
“People that were coming into absentee vote that were coming into our office that were going to be out of town on Election Day, I asked them -- why? Why do you make an effort,” said Becky Martin, Carlisle County Clerk. “It kind of boiled down to that they wanted their voices heard...and their family had a strong tradition of, went back generations, that they’ve always said ‘if you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.’”
Drew Seib is the interim chair of the political science department at Murray State University and studies topics including voter turnout. He agrees with Martin.
“You start forming that habit to vote, and you become more likely to vote throughout your life. So people who are for example, over 65 are much likely more likely to vote than someone who is in that kind of 18-to-29 kind of young cohort age range,” Seib said. “So it's kind of like a peer pressure, with socially desirable actions, one of which is to vote...and so we'd like to make sure we can tell our friends that we did our civic duty.”
It’s true that far west Kentucky is older. U.S. Census Bureau data shows many Purchase area counties have higher percentages of people over 65 years of age, than the rest of the commonwealth.
But even in counties like Marshall and Carlisle, around half of potential voters still consistently don’t show up to the polls. Some of the reason might be apathy.
“You do have some people that are really completely turned off from politics and want nothing to do with it,” Seib said. “And so it’s hard to do something about that group of people other than trying to increase trust in our political system.”
The Purchase and Pennyrile regions also have counties with the lowest voter turnout in the state. Christian County only had 30.9 percent of voting age people turn out in 2016, the lowest in Kentucky. Christian County Clerk Mike Kem isn’t happy.
“It’s not any worse than anywhere else. People are kind of fed up with all the bickering,” Kem said. “Normally, this time of year you'd see yard signs all over Christian County. How many yard signs have you seen? There's not a lot of interest.”
Kem said military moving in and out of the Fort Campbell Military Base base skews his county’s voter turnout. He said transient military families register to vote when they get Kentucky driver’s licenses. This results in multiple families registering under the same military address, leading to inaccurate voter data.
“They're still here. They're still in the counts, so it's going to look bad again,” Kem said.
Seib said getting military families to vote is an “uphill battle”, but he also said there are potential solutions that could attract more voters in general throughout the state. Election officials could move Election Day to a more convenient time like the weekend, or simply have less elections to not overwhelm voters. With people worried about daily tasks like making dinner or taking care of kids, he said voting could more convenient.
“I would be willing to bet that most people and overwhelming majority of people in Kentucky cannot, in this region anyways, cannot tell you who the candidates are for Supreme Court Justice, and that's pretty important position, right? But people just don't have their time in the lives nor the interest to really kind of spend to know these people and who they are and what they're advocating for.”