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Low voter turnout in Panhandle 'disgraceful'

May 25, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.Va. - Berkeley County has been growing by thousands of people in recent years and the debate over how development will be managed has been a simmering issue in political circles.

Five Republican candidates ran for one seat on the Berkeley County Commission in the May 9 primary and land-use regulations and other related growth issues were debated in the campaigns.

Yet only 14 percent of the county's registered voters cast votes in the election, the lowest turnout in the state.

Bonnie Woodfall, supervisor of the Berkeley County Voter Registration Office, said she is baffled by the extraordinarily low turnout.

Woodfall said she figured more people would be out voting given the growth issues in the county and the fact that candidates were out in neighborhoods talking about them and encouraging people to vote.

And it's not like voting is tough duty, Woodfall said.

In addition to the 13-hour voting period on election day, there are 20 days set aside for early voting and there is an absentee voting system for people who can't be in the area to cast ballots, Woodfall said.

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"It's disgraceful," Woodfall said of the turnout.

People going in and out of a busy convenience store in the Baker Heights area of Berkeley County on Wednesday afternoon gave varying reasons for their voting patterns.

Deborah O'Shea was in the minority in the election.

She voted and could not understand why more people didn't join her.

"With the growth we've had, you would think we would have more people registered. I don't know how to answer that, I really don't. I certainly hope we do a little better," O'Shea said as she pumped gas at the store.

Nicholas Chiccarella of Martinsburg said he does not usually vote and he is not registered to vote. Chiccarella said he does not vote because he supports socialism and therefore the system doesn't pertain to him.

Another Berkeley County voter who did not want to give her name said she did not vote in the primary election because she is new to the area.

"I am not really familiar with all the people running, or whatever," the woman said.

"I just didn't get around to it this time," a man said as he pumped gas into his car. The man, who declined to be identified, said he just got home from Fairmont State University and has been busy.

Statewide, voter turnout was 25.87 percent, the lowest turnout for a nonpresidential election year in 32 years. State elections officials attributed the turnout to a lack of high-profile races and frustration with new voting machines.

Many counties switched from voting systems they had used for years to electronic touch-screen or optical-scan systems to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

In Jefferson County, voter turnout was slightly more than 20 percent.

Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan said it's hard to determine why more people did not vote, but Maghan said it would be nice to have more participation given the work and money that goes into an election.

Although Dennis Matos, 19, of Charles Town, voted in the primary election, he said he does not usually vote unless there is a presidential election.

Matos said he doesn't vote much because he feels the interests of young people are not well represented in the democratic process.

Loretta McDonald sees complaining and voting going hand-in-glove.

"That's our God-given right. If you don't vote, you can't complain," said the 61-year-old Leetown, W.Va., woman, who has never missed a chance to vote since she was 18, she said.

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