A referendum for countywide alcohol sales failed Tuesday night, with resounding opposition to both malt beverage and unfortified wine sales — about 63 percent of voters against both — ensuring that several small towns will maintain their “dry” status.
In all, Sampson County had a voter turnout of nearly 19 percent for Tuesday’s primary election, which saw two contested commissioners races, a contest for the Democratic sheriff’s nomination (see related stories) and the countywide alcohol sales referendum.
On Tuesday night, 7,088 ballots were cast out of Sampson County’s 37,501 registered voters, an 18.9 percent turnout. Of the 7,088 who voted in the county, 3,650 were registered Republicans, 3,382 were registered Democrats, 10 Libertarian and 46 nonpartisan.
While two of the local contested races were close, the decision for countywide alcohol sales, be it beer or wine, was not one of them.
Sampson’s malt beverage election was struck down by a margin of 4,295 against (63.1 percent) versus 2,512 for (36.9 percent) such sales. In a similar tally, the unfortified wine election was defeated in a margin of 4,247 against (62.87 percent) compared to 2,508 for (37.13 percent) those sales.
Turkey Council member the Rev. Tony Moore, along with others, formed the Sampson Citizens for the Prevention of Countywide Alcohol Sales earlier this year in response to the Sampson Board of Commissioner’s approval to place the referendum on the ballot.
On Tuesday night, Moore and Dr. Larry Watts, co-chairmen of the citizen group, said they were elated with the results.
“We’re just very excited, thankful that positive community values are shining forth in Sampson County,” Moore said as the last of precincts reported the nearly 2-to-1 margin. “We never thought that it was a good idea to fund county government by a vice. Also, too, we feel like individual communities ought to have their own personal say-so and not just the county as a whole voting alcohol into communities that might not want it.”
Town boards in Turkey and Salemburg expressed their unanimous opposition to countywide sales of beer and wine within days of each other in March, both adopting resolutions to that effect.
While Clinton, Roseboro, Garland and Newton Grove currently have alcoholic beverage sales, and operate ABC stores, Turkey, Salemburg, Harrells and Autryville do not currently permit such sales, and would have been the most impacted towns should the referendum pass as they will be stripped of their “dry” status.
In addition to the town resolutions, rallies at local churches were held by the Sampson Citizens for the Prevention of Countywide Alcohol Sales in an effort to spread the word about the referendum and building opposition against it.
“It was basically a grassroots campaign with word of mouth and people expressing their viewpoints,” Moore noted. “We haven’t come at this trying to get alcohol out of the county. It’s here. We just felt like more outlets, more accessibility was not the answer. We’re not even saying that people who like to drink are bad people … that’s their prerogative, we just don’t feel like more accessibility to alcohol in the largest land mass county in the state is a good answer.”
Commissioners touted the move as a way to drum up more tax revenue, as well as another avenue for local businesses — notably retail businesses such as grocery and convenience stores — to make more money. However, while board members shared their hope of the potential revenue assistance it might provide, they stressed that the decision was the public’s.
And they spoke loudly.
The measure failed in 21 out of the county’s 23 precincts, with Harrells and Newton Grove being the only precincts that voted in favor of alcohol sales, albeit in narrow margins.
The Harrells precinct voted for malt beverage sales 130 to 116, and likewise in favor of unfortified wine, 126 to 115. In a nearly identical vote, Newton Grove voted for malt beverage sales 127 to 119 and unfortified wine, 126 to 117.
All other precincts voted down beer and wine by wide margins, with Turkey, Ingold, Herring, Clement, Kitty Fork and Clinton Southwest among those precincts where more than 70 percent were against those sales, some upwards of 80 percent.
“I hope we can find other avenues to fund our government,” said Moore. “Anytime you look at a vice to fund government, it’s a bad situation. Statistics show that. I hope and pray we’ll continue to have enough common sense to stay away from that if at all possible.”
At the same time, Moore said he not see having the choice on the ballot as a poor reflection on county commissioners.
“I think we have great county commissioners. I don’t have against against them personally, I just feel they made a bad error in judgement bringing this to our county as a countywide deal,” he remarked.
Watts agreed. He said he can still remember being disappointed when Clinton approved its liquor by the drink by a margin of 123 votes years ago.
Coming from a rough town growing up, where bars and the availability of alcohol were rampant, Watts said he liked coming to a town that did not have such sales. After Clinton voted for alcohol sales, Watts said he was afraid other municipalities would follow suit.
Like Moore, Watts said Tuesday’s referendum served to possibly take the choice away from those dry towns who would be the most affected.
“I realized there was a bigger issue that hit the communities. The loss of ability to have a voice in an individual municipality was the ultimate problem. It was more than an issue of alcohol,” Watts attested. “It was literally a loss of civil liberties.”
When the returns came in Tuesday, Watts said he was happy.
“Two to one is probably a good thing,” Watts said of the margin. “I think if more alcohol helped our people and helped their future, I would probably be for it as something more up with health. I’m not so sure this was one of those things we really needed more of. (The election results) may not make other people happy, but it’s something that brings joy to my heart.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.