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The path to the polls

The two-year journey from the primaries to the polls is almost over – but not until you cast your vote! Follow along with this handy guide to make sure you have what it takes to make your voice heard.

op frBy Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist

Occasions such as Memorial Day and the D-Day anniversary remind us of the fallen and the freedoms they died to protect. Speeches and commentaries extol the rights specified in the Constitution, religion, speech, assembly and press among them.

But the right to vote is rarely mentioned. If you’re crafting remarks based on the Bill of Rights, voting is nowhere to be found. The architects of the United States left it to the states.

The three new Jackson commissioners — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — owe their victory last fall in part to the Cashiers and Glenville communities, where they won by margins of nearly 3 to 1.

Though they won in several other precincts as well, no where was their showing as impressive as it was on the mountain.

The floundering Cashiers recreation center project could be partly to blame for their predecessors’ ousting  — although it’s not the only reason. All three were Democrats, and no Democrat on the ballot, from Congress to sheriff, fared very well in Cashiers — though none did quite so poorly as the commissioners.

While the new board of commissioners will surely curry favor with Cashiers-Glenville voters for finally making the recreation center a reality, the stage for success was set — ironically — by the former commissioners despite their dismal approval rating there.

The blueprints, the costly site work to date — and most notably $5 million squirreled away in savings to pay for construction — were left behind on a silver platter for the taking.

Cashiers and Glenville combined have a year-round population of just 3,700, according to the latest census. But there are far more seasonal residents that flood the mountain in the summer. Of the 6,440 homes in the Cashiers-Glenville area, only 25 percent are lived in year-round, according to the census.


Cashiers/Glenville election results

Jack Debnam    904

Brian McMahan    513

Doug Cody    1,179

Tom Massie    439

Charles Elders    1,175

William Shelton    453

We in the news business provide historians with some of the crucial data necessary to write the story of any particular point in time. Reporters gather facts and opinions that are snapshots of how people feel, and then we make every effort to put that information into perspective so that it’s meaningful and useful to readers. At its best, good journalism can help people make informed decisions.

Years from now, those who look back at the summer of 2010 will no doubt write about the BP oil disaster, the lingering international economic crisis, and Barack Obama’s withering public support. Perhaps those digging into what was happening in our little corner of the world might look at the results of the recent Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll results that have been published in this newspaper and online (www.smokymountainnews.com, “WNC Public Opinion Poll”) during the last couple of weeks.

The project, which we’re calling “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue,” is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina. WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts saw a dearth of hard data about how residents of this area felt about important political issues. They approached us about partnering to gather that information and then publishing the results. The poll called nearly 600 registered voters in Jackson County, and it was conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh. Public Policy Polling has earned a reputation as one of the most reputable polling agencies in the Southeast.

Some quickly write off polling data, and that’s not surprising given the sheer volume of such information on a national basis. But what’s unique — and extremely interesting — about this PPI/SMN poll is its subject matter. We now have a baseline of information about how Jackson County residents feel about certain political issues during June of 2010. That information is interesting in and of itself, as the stories on our website attest.

But perhaps more intriguing will be to update this information in six months or a year to see how the onslaught of media we are all exposed to can change opinions. Maybe we’ll find that the barrage of information doesn’t necessarily lead to quickly changing public opinion.

The demographics of Western North Carolina are unique. The traditional, conservative mountain residents are now intermingling with new faces from all over the country. Anecdotally, we know this is a place that values tradition and attracts alternative lifestyle advocates. It’s a dynamic populace that — along with the mesmerizing draw of the mountains — has made this area one of the most popular places in the country to live.

Our hope — that is, The Smoky Mountain News and the WCU Public Policy Institute — is that we can continue to accumulate polling data unique to our region that provides insight into what people are thinking and why. Anytime you can get voters to think about and discuss important issues, it will hopefully lead to better decision making by leaders. That’s a good enough reason in itself to try to continue and build on this regional project to assess the feelings of residents west of Buncombe.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.

The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.

A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.

“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.

When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.

“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.

A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.

Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.

Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.

The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.

“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.

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