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Lowest participation: Lack of interest behind low voter turnout in Stark Co.

Press Graphic by Nadya Faulx, Data by North Dakota Secretary of State Stark County was among the five counties with the lowest voter turnout in North Dakota after Tuesday’s primary election. Just 11 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, compared to 17 percent statewide.

Even compared to North Dakota’s record low voter turnout for the election on Tuesday, the number of Stark County voters who took to the polls Tuesday was lower.

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Just 11 percent of the county’s estimated 20,900 voting-age residents cast ballots in the primary election this week, one of lowest turnouts in the state.

Statewide, only 17 percent of the voting-age population voted, the lowest turnout for a primary election since 1980.

Primary elections tend to attract fewer voters, as do midterm years, said Nicholas Bauroth, an associate professor of political science at North Dakota State University.

“It’s summertime, it’s a midterm election, people aren’t going to get real excited,” he said.

A lack of high-profile candidates and measures could have also account for the underwhelming turnout in Stark County and North Dakota in general. Both the Dickinson Public School Board and Dickinson Park Board had uncontested races: three candidates for three spots on each commission. None of the state legislative races were contested either, and even the Stark County sheriff race, which pits Sheriff Clarence Tuhy against Dickinson Police Detective Terry Oestreich, was more symbolic than decisive, as both candidates will move on to November’s election.

Voters possibly felt that whether they voted or not wouldn’t make much of a difference, particularly along the uncontested partisan votes, Bauroth said.

“A lot of people don’t know the names, don’t pay attention,” he said. “Although it’s all very important, it tends not to grab people as much.”

Voters may have also not been aware that, despite being held during primaries, some decisions were finalized in Tuesday’s vote, including the Dickinson City Commission.

Three candidates — Klayton Oltmanns, Shirley Dukart and newcomer Scott Decker — ran for two spots; Oltmanns and Decker won with 976 and 1,132 votes each, respectively.

Dukart said she believes voters may have been unsure about which elections were decided Tuesday and which would move forward to the general election on Nov. 4.

“We have to educate the public that primary is one-time only,” she said. “They get confused because they think, ‘Oh, I’ll vote in November.’”

Stark County voted almost on-par with the statewide total in the past three general elections. During the general election in 2010, another midterm year, almost 44 percent of Stark County voters cast ballots, compared to 48 percent of voters statewide.

Stark County saw higher voter turnout rates than the state overall in the 2008 and 2010 primaries; Tuesday was the first primary in recent years for Stark County turnout to come out so far below the statewide total.

A younger crowd

There could be deeper issues behind the strikingly low voter turnout this year, said Steve Doherty, a professor of political science for Dickinson State University.

Doherty has been looking at the effects of the oil boom on voter turnout. Waves of young newcomers and the displacement of longtime, established residents could be shifting the number of people heading to the polls.

“When people move, it takes them a while to find out where the polls are, find out about local issues and drop their attachment to the place they lived,” he said. “The impact of this energy boom could be that fewer people are going to go out and vote.”

Boom towns in general tend to attract people who are less involved in their communities, including church, volunteering and local politics, he said.

Western North Dakota’s new residents are largely male, largely migratory and largely young — almost 85 percent of Stark County’s residents are under 65. Young adults tend to vote in lower numbers on the whole, Doherty said.

Workers flocking to the Bakken might not have the interest or even the ability to show up for elections.

“If you’re out on a rig site somewhere, how do you even participate in politics?” Doherty said.

That may explain why Ward County, which is at the center of the oil boom, saw the lowest turnout in the state with just 7.7 percent of its almost 50,000 eligible voters actually casting their vote.

But many counties in the eastern part of the state saw the same results as those in the west.

Even a high-profile mayoral race in Fargo couldn’t get voters to the polls — turnout in Cass County was around 15 percent.

In Grand Forks it was even lower at 8.22 percent.

It’s important to realize that the motivations driving voters to the polls — or keeping them away — are open questions, Bauroth said. Overall turnout could change depending on how much candidates campaign, and how they campaign, in the lead-up to November.

“It’s a fresh election,” he said. “The general election in the fall will likely be a different thing.”