Number Crunch: Why Shaw Air Force Base completely avoided the Sumter County primaries

As the final vote tallies were coming in for Tuesday’s primary, it became clear that several key Sumter County races would be decided by very small margins.  And it’s fair to imagine that several of the candidates spent the night watching the final returns come in were wondering whether or not that last precinct box might determine their fate.

This was especially true in the Sumter County Coroner race where, with one precinct left to report, there were a scant 16 votes separating the second- and third-place candidates in the Democratic primary. And what came out of that last precinct could have been vitally important.  After all, finish second and you’re in the runoff in two weeks.  Finish third, thanks for playing. 

So, if Isaac Johnson, who was trailing Robbie Baker by that small margin at the time, was aware the final precinct to report was Shaw precinct – Sumter County’s precinct dedicated to residents of Shaw Air Force Base – and he knew the past voting habits of that locale, he might have also realized his chances of catching Baker were dire.

But I doubt he would have realized exactly how grim they were.  Because, while the Shaw precinct has been synonymous throughout the years with poor voter turnout, it’s impossible to get any lower than it did Tuesday.  

When the votes were tallied, the final number of votes cast by the 608 registered voters in the precinct encapsulated by the local Air Force Base? Zero.  Nada. Not a single one.

Let’s repeat that: Not a single registered voter at Shaw Air Force Base participated in Tuesday’s election.

Now, let’s be clear: this isn’t to say local military personnel in general did not participate in the recent election.  After all, many of them live outside the confines of the air force base, and would have cast their ballots at other precinct locations.  But for the poll workers at Shaw Heights Elementary, the voting location for the Shaw precinct, Tuesday would turn out to be a very, very uneventful day.

While not definitive, here are some of the factors that might have attributed to this:

1) The official registered voter count is horribly wrong.  Just four months ago, when Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and the gang rolled through Sumter looking for support in the presidential preference primaries, the number of people registered to vote at Shaw was dramatically different.

According to the South Carolina Election Commission, back in February only 310 people were registered to vote at Shaw, of which 19 participated in one of the two primaries.  This equaled 6.2 percent voter turnout at the time, a number that might be considered nose-turning, but not necessarily jaw-dropping like Tuesday’s result.

But despite the low turnout in February, just four months later, according to the South Carolina Election Commission, the number of Shaw Air Force Base residents registered to vote nearly doubled to 608 registered voters.  This seems highly unlikely.

In fact, while every precinct in Sumter County saw its number of registered voters increase between the February election and the June election, no other precinct came close to the 49 percent uptick in registered voters Shaw experienced.  In fact, the next highest was the Palmetto Park precinct, which only saw an increase of registered voters of slightly more than 14 percent.  Overall, Sumter County saw a nine percent uptick in registered voters since February, which itself is impressive considering the county’s population growth has been stagnant, if not actually shrinking, over the past few years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This isn’t to say there are no registered voters at Shaw Air Force Base.  Still, zero votes out of any number of registered voters is still zero percent.

2) Perhaps they voted absentee?  In each election, when absentee votes are recorded, they’re placed into their own category, effectively a separate precinct, instead of being redistributed into the counts of the voter’s home precinct.  And just like Shaw is known for its low totals, Sumter County is known for having wildly disproportionate absentee voting when compared to the rest of the state. 

This was once again the case this week, when 1,929 of the 7,920 votes, nearly one-quarter of all the Sumter County votes cast, were absentee.  Statewide, about 12.4 percent of the total votes cast were absentee, meaning a Sumter County voter was twice as likely to use an absentee ballot than the average South Carolinian.

And it’s true that absentee ballots were created, in part, for voters like those at Shaw, who hold the types of jobs that could make them unavailable on Election Day.  Still, even if you were to say that a voter at Shaw was twice as likely as the average Sumter County voter was, who is already twice as likely to vote absentee than the rest of the state, that still only gets you up to about 30 votes.

3) Sumter is simply not engaging the Shaw community like it should.  This conclusion might upset many of the local officials who stress the importance of Shaw in their stump speeches, but Tuesday’s numbers, or lack thereof, show the feeling is not reciprocated.  While Sumter County officials might like to say Shaw is important to Sumter, the lack of votes by rank-and-file military personnel made it pretty clear they don’t feel that Sumter is that important to Shaw.

Honestly, this shouldn’t be shocking.  After all, for all the bluster about “uncommon patriotism” and the importance of the base to the community, most of the focus by our local officials is on base retention and not on improving the quality of life for those that live there.  We tend to worry more about development encroachment on the base than we do for what it’s like for some early 20-something enlisted airman to make this community his or her home.  When we do worry about military individuals, it’s geared more toward retirees than active duty personnel.

All you have to do is a few quick searches online.  Review after review show the folks stationed at Shaw think the base itself is all right, but that the community outside its gates is sorely lacking.   One reviewer, who said he pulled from various sources throughout the internet, went so far as to rank Shaw as the second-worst base to be stationed stateside.  It begs the question, why vote in a local election when you’re not a big fan of that locale?

The fact of the matter is, as difficult as the Shaw results Tuesday are to comprehend, we should have seen this coming.  “It’s not the first time it’s happened,” said Pat Jefferson, Director of the Sumter County Election Commission/Voter Registration Office after certifying the election results Thursday. 

But it’s something that ultimately can be, and one might even argue has to be, turned around.  If we are truly going to have symbiotic relationship with the local military installation, we need to find better ways to get them engaged.

For the politician that pulls that off, it could be quite rewarding.  After all, according to the official figures, there are more than 600 voters waiting to be swayed, not to mention the votes of military personnel living outside the base. 

 In future elections, hopefully these military folks will feel as strong a desire to participate in Sumter as Sumter feels to be involved in the developments at Shaw.  Granted, that could take some time.  For Harvin Bullock and Robbie Baker, the two remaining candidates for Sumter County Coroner, they have two weeks to sway an electorate that, as of Tuesday, was completely untapped.

5 thoughts on “Number Crunch: Why Shaw Air Force Base completely avoided the Sumter County primaries

  1. Very good information. I’m wondering if the difficulty accessing the base by nonmilitary folks is part of the issue. I can’t just drive on to Shaw and go knocking on doors in base housing because I do not have a decal or military ID. We need to look much deeper into this because I would love to be able to engage these folks.

  2. I hope people of Sumter also realize that many of the military folks are registered to vote in their home states. They are really very active in the political processes. They vote by absentee ballot in the primaries of their home of record. That is a big reason they aren’t voting in Sumter. Just thought I’d mention that for your consideration.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne. And you’re absolutely right. Many military personnel, especially those early in their careers, often maintain their voter registration in their home states. One of the points of this article is that, at least according to the South Carolina Election Commission, more than 600 people at Shaw had chosen instead register to vote here and are no longer registered “back home”, but yet none opted to do so. We’re simply trying to figure out why they didn’t vote, or whether or not those official registration numbers are even correct.

  3. Excellent reporting. Thought-provoking assessment of the primary results. Some tough pills to swallow. Hopefully, our elected officials, business leaders, Chamber reps., etc. will take notice, take heart and work toward improving many of the facets your article touched on. Keep up the good work!

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