UA political science professor: Even single votes can matter in elections

Absentee ballots come out of a printer on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 at the Benton County Clerk's Office. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

FAYETTEVILLE -- While some question the real value of one vote in an election, a 2007 referendum that would've imposed environmental "impact fees" on development in Fayetteville -- "a major policy change" -- failed by one vote, an overseas absentee ballot counted after the results were tied on election day, said Janine Parry, a professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Individual votes matter, and "exponentially more" the more localized the election, as "it's not hard mathematically to turn elections at the local level," said Parry, who has directed the Diane D. Blair Center's Arkansas Poll -- which aims to provide timely, accurate, and impartial public opinion information on matters of policy and politics to public officials, researchers, students, and the public -- since its inception in 1999. "That's when your vote really matters."

"Your vote matters," seconded Jennifer Price, executive director of the Washington County Election Commission. "We can see it in the statistics, but it's more than that."

Voting also provides "a stake" in the outcome for voters, Parry said. You "have skin in the game" which can lead to other forms of action and advocacy, such as volunteering for a campaign, volunteering for elections, donating money to candidates or causes, or even becoming a candidate she said.

Parry and Price discussed voting and elections Tuesday during a live recording of the Natural Election podcast at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, the state's only oral and visual history program with a statewide, 75-county mission to collect, preserve, and share audio and moving image recordings of Arkansas history.

Natural Election, a podcast by KUAF Public Radio, the local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, and "Ozarks at Large," KUAF's daily, local news magazine, focuses on voter participation and civic engagement, said host Matthew Moore. "I love conversations where I learn things I didn't know, and that was" certainly the case Tuesday.

While the 2018 and 2020 elections nationally provided "record turnout," participation in more localized elections continues to plummet, Parry said. Primaries in states across the country are "lucky to hit 30%," city elections -- such as for mayor -- that once regularly drew 50% of the electorate now lure barely half of that figure, and elections involving local schools (from board of education races to bond referendums) often fail to crack double digits.

Arkansas tends to trail those national rates by a couple of percentage points, meaning Arkansans are slightly less likely to vote than the national average, but "that's a demographic thing," Parry said. Arkansans are both "poorer and less well educated" than the national average, and both affluence and higher levels of education correspond with a higher likelihood of voting.

Local elections have become more nationalized while many local news outlets -- primarily local newspapers -- have "collapsed," leading to a paucity of local political information, Parry said. In many states, candidates take more extreme positions to win primaries, but they don't "run back to the center for a general election," which feeds apathy, because "most voters are around the center."

Some citizens -- as well as some elected officials -- have also attacked the integrity of elections, but Price vouched for the fairness of elections in Washington County and Arkansas.

"Before every election, we do logic and accuracy tests to make sure votes cast for candidates" are properly recorded, and "basically everything our office does is open to the public," she said. "We'll never close our doors to anyone who wants to watch our process, [because] we want voters to have faith in what we do, [and] if you're not open about the process, voters won't have trust in what you do."

Washington County has 41 polling locations, a balance of city and rural, she said. The latter is "a priority, [as] people want to vote in their communities."

Beginning in 2020, Bud Walton Arena on the campus of UA-Fayetteville opened as an early voting location and will be used in that capacity again this year, she said. Many had long asked for an on-campus polling place, but parking was always an issue; however, the Bud Walton Arena offers "ease of access, and everyone knows it."

In Arkansas, residents must register at least 30 days before an election to vote, although the last day to register for the Nov. 8 general election this year is Oct. 11 due to Oct. 8 falling on a weekend and Oct. 10 being a holiday, Price said. Individuals can make sure they're registered, verify their address is correct, view sample ballots, and more online at, "a great website."

"We always encourage early voting -- there's rarely a line" -- and early voting begins Oct. 24, she said. Hours, dates, and locations are available at

To vote in-person, one needs to present a valid photo identification, and a student I.D. is acceptable from college students, she said. Individuals can also procure a free photo ID "for voting purposes only" from their county clerk.