Candidates, groups work to up turnout in Bluffton elections

Just days before an Oct. 10 deadline for voters to register for Bluffton municipal elections in November, candidates and nonpartisan groups alike are working to increase turnout at the polls in an off-cycle election year.

The town held its first odd-year election in 2009, but only 552 of the town's 5,650 registered voters -- about 9.77 percent -- cast ballots on Election Day.

In the 2008 general election, 3,264 people -- or 66 percent of the town's 4,914 eligible voters -- cast ballots in the Bluffton mayor's race.

"If only 10 percent of voters are showing up to our town elections, that's just embarrassing," said Karen Lavery, one of four candidates for two open Town Council seats.

Lavery included a list of precincts and polling places on the backs of the business cards she had printed as campaign literature.

At Town Council candidate Ted Huffman's Bluffton BBQ restaurant, a stack of voter registration forms have flown off the counter.

The League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area also is making a "major push" to register voters after expanding to include the town under a new charter earlier this year, member Barbara Swift said.

The league is hosting voter-registration drives this week at the Bluffton library and has a booth at the Farmers Market of Bluffton on Calhoun Street to pass out forms and answer questions.

For the first time, the league will host a candidate forum for the Bluffton elections at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 at Town Hall. Lavery, Huffman and incumbent council members Fred Hamilton and Allyne Mitchell will present their platforms and take questions.

"The more we do, the more people will be conscious of the election," said league member Sue Feutz.

The town held its elections on even years in December before deciding in 2006 to move them to the November of odd years.

Turnout in Bluffton elections had decreased since 2002, even as the number of registered voters has increased.

That year, 51 percent, or 215, of the town's 425 registered voters, cast ballots. In 2004, 24 percent, or 280, voted even though the number of registered voters rose to 1,177. In 2006, about 13 percent of the town's 2,609 registered voters went to the polls.

Hamilton said he opposed the change and noted that it hasn't worked. However, he said he wouldn't call for the town to look at a new election schedule if this year's numbers are also low.

He said the town has done good job at informing residents of their precincts and posting information on its website.

"I don't know what else we can do," Hamilton said.

Don Blair, a member of numerous town committees, said the real work of educating voters needs to be done in "new town" -- areas that have been annexed or neighborhoods that have popped up over the past decade.

Blair said council members, the majority of whom reside in old town Bluffton, can count on support from other longtime residents.

"With that knowledge, the people who run for office knowing that the old town bloc of votes are there are pretty much a shoo-in as far as getting elected," he said. "If we could get more representation from 'new town'... they've never really felt like they're actually part of the town."

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

Related content:

Bluffton council takes first step in re-establishing town election commission, March 8, 2011

SC Supreme Court sends year-old contested Bluffton election back to court, Dec. 8, 2008

Town eyes vote change, Jan. 12, 2006