As change comes to Sussex are voters paying attention?

By Lynn R. Parks

In the most recent election for councilman from Sussex County's fifth district, 10,865 people voted. That number is not even half of the 22,644 registered voters of that district, which includes Laurel and Delmar. In that election, incumbent Vance Phillips defeated challenger Harvey Hyland. A win by Hyland probably would not have made any difference in the county's approval last week of Blackwater Creek, a 1,200-home development three miles west of Delmar. That vote was 4 to 1, with Councilman George Cole casting the lone no vote. But Hyland, described in an October 2006 article in the Delaware Coast Press as someone who "could hardly disagree more" with Phillips, would have brought a different perspective to the council. And because more than half of the registered voters in the Fifth Councilmanic District did not vote, no one knows if his or Phillips' perspective better represents the feelings of the majority of the district's residents. The 2006 fifth district councilmanic election, with about 48 percent of eligible voters voting, is not representative of town elections in western Sussex County. Sadly, that is not because its voter turnout was lower than typical turnouts in towns, but because it was higher. In town elections, where citizens choose council representatives whose decisions could have more immediate impact on their lives, voter turnout is extremely low. In Blades, for example, where at the time of the 2000 census there were 677 residents 18 and older, and therefore presumably eligible to vote, only 80 people are registered to do so. And in Greenwood, only 45 people voted in a Jan. 20 election to fill two seats on the town council. That was of 93 people in town who are registered to vote. According to the 2000 census, Greenwood had 571 people in town who were 18 or older. In both Greenwood and Blades, the town councils are in the midst of decisions about their towns' growth, and how best to manage it. Michael O'Gara, town manager in Greenwood, said that everyone in town got plenty of notice about the election, as well as plenty of opportunity to register to vote. Notices about the elections were included in the Greenwood Gazette, the town's quarterly newsletter, and in utility bills. Town hall remained open one evening and one Saturday to allow citizens to register to vote. Citizens could also register to vote during regular business hours. "Needless to say, there was lots of opportunity for people to register," O'Gara said. Even so, less than 10 percent of Greenwood citizens went to the polls. "There is a bumper sticker that I love, that says, 'Democracy is not a spectator sport,' " said Carol Jones, past president of the Sussex County chapter of the League of Women's Voters. "Democracy works when people vote." Jones said that it is important for people to realize that one vote can make a difference, in small, local elections as well as even on a grand scale. "It is incredible how, in the course of history, one vote has made a difference in the future of this country," she said. "It sounds trite, but it is true that every vote counts." For example, according to the website www.voteamericavote.com, a Virginia senator, Leslie Byrne, was elected in 1999 by just 37 votes, less than one vote per precinct. John Kennedy won the presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960 by less than one vote per precinct. And one vote per precinct gave women the right to vote in California in 1911. Jones, who is the chairwoman of her chapter's voter services committee, said that people do not vote because they "do not feel connected to the process." Education is the remedy for that, she said. "We need to give young people better lessons in civics," she said, "to give them an early understanding of what it means to vote. They need to have an understanding of their place in society." "People who vote believe that their vote counts," said Letitia Diswood, co-president of the Delaware league of Women Voters. "They believe that it is their civic duty. And they are connected to the community." Like Jones, Diswood emphasized the importance of voting in local elections. "Those politicians are people who will be making decisions that affect our everyday lives," she said. "We have to educate people about how important that is."

Voter turnout low in all towns
Blades and Greenwood are not alone in low voter turnout. Throughout western Sussex County, town elections come and go with only a minority of the citizens participating. According to the 2000 census, the population of people 18 and older in Bridgeville is 1,024. A little more than a third of that number, 393, are registered to vote. In the recent vote that approved an annexation of about 700 acres that could triple the town's population, 223 people cast ballots. And only 163 people voted in the last town election, in March 2006. In Seaford, there were 6,699 people counted in the 2000 census, 4,981 of whom were 18 and older. Less than a quarter of that number, 1,155, are registered to vote in the city. In the last election, in March 2006, 366 people cast ballots. Laurel had 311 people vote in its last town election, in March 2005, of 375 registered voters. That election put into office the mayor and council members who recently approved the annexation of property to accommodate the Discovery Project, which is planned to have 1,400 homes, two large sports stadiums and 250 stores. In 2000, the town had 2,450 people 18 and older. Delmar, Del., had 1,033 people 18 and older at the time of the 2000 census. Its most recent election, set for October 2006, was cancelled when only one person filed to run for the open seat. In October 2004, 106 voted. Delmar, Md., had 1,274 people 18 and older at the time of the 2000 census. In its last election, in November 2005, 85 people voted.

Influence of citizens' groups
Brenda Stover is a member of HAPPEN, a group of Hearn's Pond residents that successfully fought annexation into Seaford of about 600 acres near the pond. She is hopeful that, as people become more connected to what's going on in the community, they will become more vocal and more willing to participate in local elections. She said members of HAPPEN, who passed out flyers in opposition to the annexation, were surprised by the willingness of town residents to listen to what they had to say. "Local government has to be more open-minded, to try more avenues to bring people into discussions," she said. "Everybody is really interested in their own town, but they may not know how to express it. Towns have to provide ways for people to participate." Stover, like Jones, sees value in education, and not just in schools. "It is a matter of educating the public, so they know what's possible," she said. A key ingredient to that, she added, is the local newspaper. "People have to know what can happen, and what other people have done in their communities," she said. W. D. Whaley is a member of SCOLDM, an organization similar to HAPPEN that is fighting annexation into Laurel of the Discovery Project land. Whaley said that he was disappointed in the few Laurel citizens who attended a meeting last week about the project. Of 43 people at the meeting, only six were residents of the town. The others were residents of the area around the proposed annexation. "There's a lot of apathy out there," he said. "We had put flyers throughout the town of Laurel, but there doesn't seem to be much interest out there. I don't know what other issues people would be interested in, if they aren't interested in this. This would be as drastic a change as the town has ever gone through." Whaley said that he hopes that people become informed about this annexation and other issues before the town election set for March. "What else would get them out to vote if this doesn't?" he asked.

Voting record by town
Greenwood 2000 Population - 837
Those 18 and over - 571
2005 Population - 883
Registered to vote - 93
Voted in last election - Jan. 20, 45
Voter percentage - 7.9%

Bridgeville
2000 Population - 1,436
Those 18 and over - 1,024
2005 Population - 1,578
Registered to vote - 393
Voted in last election - Annexation (January 2007), 223; March 2006 election, 163
Voter percentage - 21.7% and 15.9%

Seaford
2000 Population - 6,699
Those 18 and over - 4,981
2005 Population - 6,997
Registered to vote - 1,155
Voted in last election - March 2006 - 366
Voter percentage - 7.3%

Laurel
2000 Population - 3,668
Those 18 and over - 2,450
2005 Population - 3,822
Registered to vote - 375
Voted in last election - March 2005 - 311
Voter percentage - 12.7%

Blades
2000 Population - 956
Those 18 and over - 677
2005 Population - 999
Registered to vote - 80
Voted in last election - Annexation, January, 78; municipal, March 2006, 45
Voter percentage - 11.5% and 6.6%

Delmar, Del.
2000 Population - 1,407
Those 18 and over - 1,033
2005 Population - 1,483
Registered to vote - 312
Voted in last election - October 2004, 106
Voter percentage - 10.3%

Delmar, Md.
2000 Population - 1,859
Those 18 and over - 1,274
2005 Population - 2,290
Registered to vote - 1,043
Voted in last election - November 2005, 85
Voter percentage - 6.7%

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