By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — In 21st century America, there is still at least one place in the country where almost everybody knows your name, most people stay put, and cars and front doors go unlocked.
Welcome to Surry County, Va., where a higher percentage of the voting age population is registered to vote than anywhere else in the state. It has a population of 7,000 and no central grocery story.
Roughly 100 percent of the county’s 18-and-older population are on the voting rolls, according to a Watchdog.org comparison of U.S. Census Bureau data with state voter registration data. The sparsely populated Surry County near Newport News arguably tops the list as the most politically engaged locality in the state.
“It’s just country living, good, solid, country living — it’s a progressive, small, rural county,” Clarence Penn, Jr., who served as Surry County superintendent of schools for 21 years between 1977 and 1998, told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
“I plan to die here,” he said.
That’s the kind of community that contributes to the high voter registration level in Surry County and its three towns — Surry, Claremont, and Dendron. General Registrar Lucille Epps and other locals attributed high voter registration to a low level of mobility and relatively large elderly population. The Democratic Party alsois very active in Surry, where blacks account for roughly 45 percent of the population, while whites account for 52 percent, according to U.S. census data.
But one thing’s for sure — the small-town feel makes the voter rolls maintenance process a little easier. Epps’ office often knows who has died before their names appear on the obituary pages.
“Before they even get cold, we’ve got them off our books,” Epps told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. “They’re off in 15 minutes.”
And in the most registered locality in the state, it isn’t always the big races that matter most.
“We realize here that politics on the local level determine how we eat, how we live — if we eat or live,” said Penn.
Oftentimes, it’s the down-ballot races that get people riled up — think board of supervisors, school board, and especially sheriff’s race.
“Sheriff is usually a big deal,” said Jason Wiedel, a 20-year resident of Surry and director at The Center, a community coffee shop that opened just four years ago — brand new, by Surry standards.
“… Beyond just the political aspect of it, sometimes things like (the sheriff’s race) stirs up loyalties that are not necessarily political loyalties. It’s families and it’s neighbors and folks you’ve known for a long time,” he said.
This year, Democrat Robert “Bobby” Scott — who has raised $267,623, compared with Republican Dean Longo’s $0, according to the Virginia Public Access Project — has Surry’s support in the 3rd District U.S. House of Representatives race, Penn said.
“We’re much behind Bobby Scott,” said Penn. “Bobby Scott’s been with us from the start, here all the time for different activities, and he takes an interest in his cities here.”
But, people realize the importance of the big races,too, said Dennis Kenneth, manager of Farmers United Inc., a farm supply and feed co-op that’s been around since 1979. Kenneth said he hears the most talk about the presidential matchup between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney this year than the congressional race or U.S. Senate race between former governors Tim Kaine and George Allen.
“We definitely got to have something changing for the economy, the small businesses,” said Kenneth. “We need someone else looking after what’s going on.”
Whatever the race, the most important issue at hand in Surry County, with an unemployment rate above the statewide average of 6 percent at 7.9 percent in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is clear to residents.
“I think most people would say jobs,” Wiedel said.
Surry County residents weren’t always so civically engaged, said Penn, who remembers a time when his home was a place known for its poor health and sanitary standards and horrific graduation levels.
“They used to call our county sorry county,” said Penn. “We were pitiful.”
All that began to change in the late 1960s, when a community improvement group called the Assembly formed in Surry to help the poor, largely black population, and engage them in the governing process, said Penn.
In the years that followed, the Assembly’s efforts reversed the dismal education system, giving Surry something to boast about with a roughly 95 percent high school graduation rate, Penn said.
“That was the key to the community — the education was the key to the community,” he said.
And hand in hand with education came civic engagement. Teachers — 16 of whom Penn let go after he became superintendent in 1977 because they weren’t certified — taught the importance of voting. Now, most high school seniors were registered to vote before they received their diplomas, Penn said.
“The Assembly met, and they would discuss housing, they would discuss plumbing, they would discuss the social service situation,” said Penn. “They would discuss all aspects of life here, and then decide what was most important and what needed to be done. But the most important thing was registering to vote — self-help.”
Surry County has changed since the 1970s. The Assembly dissolved. “Outsiders,” as many locals call them, began infiltrating the tight-knit community a couple decades ago for the “cheaper living and being in the country,” as Kenneth put it.
But in many ways, Surry County is still the same, said Penn, minus many of the social ills that plagued it a few decades ago.
“We don’t have the same kinds of problems we had then,” said Penn. “So the enthusiasm to vote is still the same, but the problems are far less.”
For Penn, reflecting on the transformation that led Surry County its status as the locality with the highest level of registered voters in the state is satisfying.
“Looking back and seeing how far we’ve come — it’s a glorious feeling,” said Penn. “Exhilarating. It’s hard to explain.”
To see Earl Glynn’s full data set of registered voters compared with U.S. Census population data, visit Watchdoglabs.org.