While Georgia saw a dramatic surge in turnout over the last midterm elections, it still ranks last in the nation at luring voters to the polls. Only 29 percent of its voting-age residents cast ballots this November, up 10 percentage points from 1978, the last midterm election.
But analysts are celebrating Georgia's improved cellar-dweller status, along with a jump in voter turnout across the South. Voting trends show that the southern states' turnout has climbed steadily for two decades. The South registered the biggest jump in the 1982 midterm election while the country as a whole reversed a 22-year downward trend in voter turnout.
Southern voting gains were spurred by an increase in two-party rivalry, general voter angst over the economy and a surge among black voters who saw the elections as an opportunity to register frustration with Reaganomics, analysts said.
Curtis B. Gans, director of a Washington-based research group that compared states' voting against that in the 1978 election, puts turnout in the South at 34 percent, up 4 points from 1978. Nationwide turnout was 41 percent, up 3 points, largely because of a heavy labor vote in the industrial northern states.
"It's the narrowest gap between the South and non-southern states ever," said Gans. "The South is becoming more like the rest of the country in its voting patterns."
Turnout was up in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Mississippi stayed the same, with black voting up dramatically in the Delta district for Robert Clark, who lost his bid to become the first black congressman from that state since Reconstruction.
In Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, turnout was down. There were no statewide races to compare in Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina.
In Alabama, turnout was up 9 points from 1978, to 38 percent. An effective coalition between blacks, labor, teachers and the Democratic Party helped Ben Erdreich upset Rep. Albert Lee Smith Jr., a Republican freshman from the hard-hit steel town of Birmingham. Black turnout there was up dramatically from 1978.
Indeed, blacks across the South made the difference in tight races, helping to oust four Republican freshmen. They also voted for Democrat George C. Wallace, a former segregationist who won an unprecedented fourth term as governor.
But Joe Reed, chairman of the state's black caucus, described the vote as anti-Reagan rather than pro-Wallace. "Blacks voted the straight Democratic ticket and Wallace just happened to be on it," Reed said. "The Republican Party scares the hell out of black folks."
Arkansas scored the highest turnout of any southern state, with 48 percent, up 14 points.