In less than two weeks, polls throughout the state will open for the general election.

But don’t be surprised if the line at a local polling place isn’t very long. Voter turnout this year is expected to be low.

Just how low? Probably between 36 and 40 percent, according to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.

Most people attribute low turnout numbers to the upcoming election being a mid-year election — one of those boring elections that fall on the even year between when voters elect presidents and governors. Voter turnout during other mid-year elections was 42.3 percent in 2002, 41 percent in 1998 and 49.7 percent 1994, state records show.

But is the lack of voter interest this year just based on that? Or is it a sign of something bigger — perhaps dissatisfaction among voters with politics in general and candidates specifically?

A poll conducted by RMS Strategies for The State Journal suggests the latter option may be closest to the truth. The telephone poll of 400 people conducted Oct. 19 to 21 asked residents a variety of questions to measure their perceptions of political parties, elected leaders and whether they believe the state’s economy will improve.

And time after time, voters expressed not only pessimism but also apathy.

“Voters say taxes are one of the biggest issues facing them, but when asked how likely they think it is that the governor or the Legislature will reduce taxes, most people say it’s not likely,” said Mark Blankenship, senior vice president for RMS Strategies. “They see gasoline prices come down but not the gas tax. The food tax is the only one where a majority of voters believe it may go down. That’s really sad.”

Robert Rupp, a professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said those types of answers show a huge disconnect between voters and their elected leaders.

“It’s unhealthy,” he said. “The reason why we have elections every two years is to put the reins on our legislators. When voters feel powerless to even make lawmakers do what they want, it’s proof of a disconnect.”

And when that disconnect happens, voters stop doing just that — voting.

“They don’t equate voting with political power. They don’t believe their vote even matters,” he said.

And voters, for the most part, don’t believe the state will change. For the past several years, The State Journal has asked residents whether they believe the state’s economy is on the right track and whether it will get better during the next five years. In the most recent poll, 29 percent said they thought it would get better, 24 percent said it would get worse and 41 percent said it would stay the same.

Compare that to previous polls and a trend appears.

• In May 2006, 39 percent thought it would get better, 37 percent thought it would get worse and 33 percent said it would remain the same.

• In November 2005, voters were divided into nearly equal thirds, with 36 percent saying it will get better, 33 percent saying it would get worse and 28 percent saying it will remain about the same.

• In August 2005, voters were asked what they thought of the direction the state was heading in. In that poll, 51 percent said it was heading in the right direction, compared to 32 percent who said it was heading in the wrong direction; 17 percent did not know.

All of the polls interviewed 400 registered voters and have an identical margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Over the course of the polls, the number of people who think the state’s economy will improve has steadily declined, while the number of people who think it will just stay the same has increased.

“People aren’t anticipating any marked change in the state or its economy in the next five years,” Blankenship said. “In fact, two out of three of the people sampled believe the economy will stay the same or get worse.”

People simply don’t believe the state can change, the poll suggests, and they don’t believe in political parties or candidates either.

In the most recent poll, voters were asked which party they had more trust and confidence in to improve the state’s economy. About 28 percent said they had more trust in the Republican Party, while 49 percent said they trusted the Democratic Party. A whopping 23 percent didn’t answer or didn’t know. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Rupp said part of those results might be linked to the state’s long-time history of being a Democratic state. The Democratic Party still outweighs Republicans in term of registration by 2 to 1, despite the state voting for a Republican president twice in a row and electing a Republican to Congress several years in a row.

“Voters may change how they vote, but they don’t change their party registration,” Rupp said.

But do voters really even know what their parties stand for anymore? The poll asked voters which party they had more faith in when dealing with a list of national and state issues. The issues included preventing terrorist attacks, making national taxes fairer, making state taxes fairer, improving worker safety, stopping political corruption, ending child abuse, the war in Iraq, reducing the national deficit and reducing the state’s debt.

In every case, voters said they had more faith in the Democratic Party.

“The closest Republicans come is in preventing terrorist attacks, and even then its 42 percent to 37 percent,” Blankenship said. “In terms of making taxes fairer, on the national level Republicans are seen as tax-cutters, but that doesn’t mean they are making them fairer to most people. And in the area of improving workers’ safety, three out of five voters see the Democrats as the torch bearer on that.”

West Virginia Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey said he wasn’t surprised that state voters identify more with the Democratic Party, especially with what’s going on at the national level. The Mark Foley-congressional page scandal, questions about the war in Iraq and scandals related to lobbyists have tainted the Republican’s image.

“National issues drive the perceptions of the Republican Party here,” he said.

D.C. and Louise Wingate agree with those numbers. The Clendenin area couple said they see the Democratic Party as less “selfish” than the Republican Party and more worried about regular folks like themselves.

“I believe the Democrats have a better chance in changing things,” D.C. Wingate, 76, said. “They seem to understand what’s out there. The Republicans look inward and look at what is best for them.”

His wife, Louise, 75, agreed.

“I feel the Democrats have a better understanding of people’s needs. They aren’t as selfish,” she said.

Even in the area of controlling political corruption, Democrats get higher grades than Republicans. Forty-three percent of voters said they had more faith in the Democrats to knock out corruption compared to only 24 percent who had faith in Republicans.

But the Democrats shouldn’t be cheering too much. About 33 percent of the voters said they didn’t know which party would be better at stopping corruption.

“Democrats have come through their own turmoil — vote-buying in the south,” Blankenship said. “So voters aren’t flocking to them with the perception that the party is less corrupt.”

Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney said some of the results surprised him. He said voters are led to believe the worst about Republicans based on “propaganda in the media.”

“In West Virginia, Democrats will try to take credit for lowering the food tax, but they only did it by one cent,” he said. “The Republicans fought that because they want to take the entire tax off, not just lower it.”

But he did agree with one finding in the poll — West Virginia’s economy either will stay the same or get worse in the next five years.

“At least they are paying attention to one thing,” McKinney said. “They have paid attention to 70 years of history and Democrat rule. If nothing has changed for 70 years, why would they think things will change in the next five years if Democrats are still in control?”

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