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Votes

Alchemy of Voter Turnout

Competition plus negativity plus door-knocking add up to more voters, say experts.

A higher percentage of Fairfax County voters cast ballots in last week’s state and local elections than Virginia voters overall. But that isn’t saying much.

Only 27 percent of registered Virginia voters and 33 percent of registered Fairfax County voters bothered to vote.

During the Jim Webb/George Allen U.S. Senate race last year, 52.7 percent of registered Virginia voters and 55.6 percent of registered Fairfax County voters came to the polls. In the 2004 presidential election, 71.4 percent of registered Virginia voters and 73.8 percent of registered Fairfax

County voters cast ballots, according to statistics provided by the state and county.

Political scientists call this cycle of elections – where residents only vote for General Assembly and county government officials – the "off-off year election." Without a national or statewide race at the top of the ticket, it is difficult to entice voters to the polls, they said.

"You always find voter turn out is higher in a presidential election. The race at the top of the ticket seems to matter to people more," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University.

Other factors also play into voter turnout, said McDonald and others. For example, more competitive races tend to turn out more voters than uncontested races.

During the same round of local and state elections in 2003, more registered Virginia voters – about 30 percent – turned out to vote because more state races were contested. In 2007, only about half of the General Assembly races saw competition, which kept voter turnout low, according to Matt Smyth, communications director for University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Unlike Virginia, Fairfax County saw more competitive and high profile races in 2007 than 2003 – which could have driven up voter turnout slightly in the county, said experts. About 32.8 percent of voters came to the polls in 2003.

Competition, particularly in state senate races, could also explain why voter turnout in Fairfax was higher than the rest of the state in this particular year.

"The interest in Fairfax is going to be a lot higher than in a place where one candidate wins almost automatically like Arlington or Alexandria – where the Democrats have basically already won," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

Despite being a well-known candidate, Delegate and state House Democratic caucus leader Brian Moran’s race, where he faced no official competition in a district mostly located in the City of Alexandria, drew only 12 percent of registered voters.

The House of Delegates 34th District race in McLean – where victor Margi Vanderhye and Dave Hunt competed for an open seat – drew more than 35 percent of that district’s registered voters to the polls.

All of Fairfax’s contested senate seats – in the 33rd, 34th, 37th and 39th Districts – brought more than 30 percent of their registered voters out to the polls while those uncontested Fairfax senate races drew 25 percent or less of registered voters, according to state records.

Even among competitive races, certain contests attracted more voters than others.

The fight between Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) and Democratic winner Chap Petersen over the 34th district senate seat brought at significantly more voters than any other race in the county.

According to voting records, 39.29 percent of voters showed up to vote for their 34th District state senator. The next highest turnout in a race came from the 35th District House of Delegates race between Del. Steve Shannon (D), who won, and Republican Arthur Purves – a district which shares several precincts with the 34th senate district.

There are many reasons why the 34th senate district race may have brought out more voters than other races in the county, said experts.

Both candidates are well known in the district. Devolites Davis has represented all or part of the district as both a senator and a delegate for 10 years and she is married to the area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11). Petersen, whose family has lived in the City of Fairfax for seven generations, has also represented a portion of the district on the City of Fairfax’s city council and in the House of Delegates.

"I think you will have high turn out in any election where you have an incumbent that has high name recognition and a challenger that brings the same thing to the table," said Smyth.

The race was also the most expensive in the state with $3 million spent between the two campaigns combined.

"The Petersen-Devolites Davis race was an over the top amount of money," said McDonald, who lives in the district.

That amount of money allowed the candidates to saturate the district with direct mail and to purchase advertising time on network television – which is unprecedented for a state race in Virginia.

"The penetration of network television — it is like hitting a flea with a sledgehammer. You reach so many more people than you need to," said George Burke, spokesperson for the Fairfax County Democratic Party.

The Petersen-Devolites Davis race was also particularly negative, which can actually make voters pay attention to – rather than ignore a race, according to McDonald.

"I know people like to see negative campaigning turns voters off but what can actually happen is that it makes the race interesting and it can stimulate voters to be interested," said McDonald.

Door knocking could also have made a difference, according to McDonald. Petersen, who won by about 10 points, is known for his aggressive door-to-door campaign, where he tries to meet voters face to face.

"This is a pretty remarkable turnout in a state legislative race. Part of it has to do with the mobilization. [Political science studies show] people who get face-to-face contact have a significantly higher propensity to vote than people who get a phone call," said McDonald.

Petersen, himself, thinks the door knocking made a difference in his own success and in the higher voter turnout. He said he won all but one of the 20 precincts where he knocked on doors personally.

"I think the media is almost meaningless. It cancels itself out. Voters are much more likely to come out if they meet someone face to face," said Petersen.