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QUESTION: On Wednesday, October 10 a joint report from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that the national primary turnout fell to the lowest level since presidential primaries proliferated in 1972.

Will voters turnout for the general election and is this indicative of increasing polarization in our politics?

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By Victoria Bassetti

Regardless what either political party does to get out the vote this November or how enthusiastic voters are as they go to the polls, one outcome is virtually guaranteed the day after the election: a quadrennial howl of despair over low voter turnout.

It’s hard not to read the 2012 primary turnout data produced by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and not feel that scream begin to form in the throat.

When I was writing my book, these numbers were not available. So I did a quick research project on voter turnout for the 2011 mayoral elections in major American cities, ie cities with a population above half a million. The results were just as grim: the average turnout (VAP) was just shy of 20 percent. In one city—Houston—turnout was less than eight percent.

Some people would doubtless shrug their shoulders at these numbers. If people don’t bother to show up, that’s their problem. (Read: if people are too lazy to vote, then they deserve whatever bad or non-representative government they get). Others might argue that 32,909,443 voters in the primaries is not a low number and that it is a large enough sample size to accurately gauge the people’s wishes.

These perspectives deserve to be rebutted on a philosophical level (and I’ll get to that). But they also open up new avenues for questions and inquiry in the data and issue for CSAE and BPC.

As the study points out both California and Washington have recently altered their primary systems to a “top two” mechanism in the hope that it will increase turnout and tamp down polarization. Neither state saw dramatic changes in turnout in the 2012 primaries. We’re going to have to adopt a wait and see attitude toward their experiments.

But primaries are critical. They set up our binary choice every November. And in some states, as we know, primaries are all that really matters when if comes to elections. So how polarized, radicalized are the people who actually do turn up for these primaries? How different are these rare voters than the general population in the state? For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that non-voters and voters are roughly the same, at least from a policy perspective. (There are, to be sure, significant differences on a socioeconomic level, which is worrisome for other reasons.) But some recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom may be wrong. In short, there might be very significant sample bias in our primary system. I happen to think there is and that it’s worth delving into.

Let’s get back to that issue about lazy citizens who deserve what they get. What hogwash. Our election administration system and political campaign structure border on outright hostility to voters. Voters take a battering every election season. They are subjected to brutal, hostile negative campaigns; told every politician is lying to them or is in the pocket of monied or special interests; made to believe that voter fraud and corruption are rampant; often treated like prospective criminals and burdened by bureaucratic requirements that would make a bank loan officer proud. (Now I realize that all may sound a bit hyperbolic, but think about it from the consumers/voters’ perspective. It’s not pretty.)

We’ve spent a lot of time studying the vanishing voter. The work in this CSAE/BPC study puts some hard numbers on them in state primaries. We need to start thinking how to bring people back to the polls. Let’s watch Washington and California carefully for their “top two” approach. And let’s watch Washington and Oregon for their mail-in ballot use. Let’s watch California also after 2015 when it moves to election day registration. (I wonder if the report press release’s tone of skepticism about mail in voting for Washington, Oregon and California is really fair by the way.)

Did states with late (ie closer to general election) primaries fare better? That question is likely more relevant to non-presidential primary years, but it’s still worth wondering whether late season primaries have higher turnout and are less polarized.

This study continues an invaluable debate and quest to understand the overall health of American democracy. If like me, you want to scream at the results, feel free.

Victoria Bassetti, a former staff director and chief counsel to a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, is the author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters.

Welcome to the Democracy Project Forum! This forum explores the Democracy Project’s work in government institutions, election administration, and leadership. The Democracy Project has invited some of the leading policy and political experts to respond to discussion topics, Democracy Project reports, and current events.

Any views on this forum do not necessarily represent the views of the Democracy Project, it’s Co-Chairs, or the Bipartisan Policy Center.