Commissioner: Older voters dominate turnout in Sebastian County elections

by Michael Tilley ( 400 views 

While they may be more politically active and vocal on social media, Millennials and other generations below the age of 55 post low voter turnout numbers in Sebastian County.

Of the 4,008 voters in the June 19 GOP primary runoff between Frank Glidewell and Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, 73% were age 55 or older. Of the 1,085 voters age 54 and younger, only 22.4% (244) were in the 18-34 age bracket.

Pitsch won the runoff for the Arkansas Senate District 8 seat with 51.04% to Glidewell’s 48.96% (2,069-1,985, or an 84-vote margin). The Senate 8 seat will be decided on Nov. 6 when Pitsch faces Libertarian candidate William Hyman.

The primary runoff voting percentages by age are almost the opposite of Sebastian County age demographics. According to 2015 U.S. Census data, there were 127,273 county residents, with 33,545, or 26.4%, above the age of 55, and 73.6% below age 55.

Sebastian County Election Commissioner Lee Webb, who also served as a member of the Sebastian County Quorum Court, said that while the primary runoff of June 19 had low voter turnout, the age of voters was “almost identical” with recent county elections.

“I doubt if it’s two percentage points different than at least the past three elections,” Webb said.

The county voting patterns also hold a message for candidates.

“I would tell them not to spend a (campaign) dime on anything, on any mailers or whatever to people below 55. They don’t vote in enough numbers,” Webb said.

Of the 69,817 registered Sebastian County voters (As of June 25), 3,798 are registered as Republicans, 2,379 are registered as Democrats, three are registered as Libertarians, and just one is registered with the Green Party. The remaining registered voters who did not declare a party affiliation are classified as “optional.” Webb, a Democrat, believes the high number of optional registrants reflects the independence of voters in the county.

“It’s about the person, the candidate. They go with that. … Based on those (optional) registered voters, there is a high percentage who swing on any given year to the candidate of their choice,” Webb said.

Chip Paris, owner of Paris Marketing & Public Relations, said Webb is correct as to the influence of older voters, but disagreed about not spending money to target younger voters.

“Yes, Lee is correct in that historically, an effort has to be made to talk to those over the age of 55. Those are most of your voters … they’ve got time, and experience, and they’ve got interest,” said Paris, who helped manage Pitsch’s campaign for the Arkansas Senate seat.

Paris counters that it is important to create a relationship with those under 55 because they will eventually be in the demographic that votes more frequently.

“You can’t ignore that (younger) demographic. You’ve got to be able to engage with that demographic; to educate them about the process, and … if you can in the process of educating them, also introduce them to a candidate who might be able to offer them something at their age,” Paris said.

Paris also believes younger people in the Fort Smith area are becoming more politically engaged.

“It doesn’t happen at the same rate as a Fayetteville or (more urban cities), but yes, I think you are seeing more and more of those people who are younger start to figure out where they can make a difference. And supporting a candidate or supporting an issue is one way they see they can make an impact.”