Forty-six million voters cast ballots this year in primaries for federal office. It is a large number, and up significantly from 2014. But to strengthen our political parties and our democracy, we must do much better.
First, the good news — the 46 million votes cast in the primaries ahead of this year’s midterm elections represent 19.9 percent of eligible voters, that is up from 32 million or 14.4 percent of voters who participated in primaries for federal office four years ago.
The Bipartisan Policy Center analysis of official election data found that participation was up across the board — in 42 states, every geographic region, and among both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats especially showed increased enthusiasm, which may benefit them in the November elections, with 9.4 million more voters than four years ago for a total of 22.9 million ballots cast. Republicans saw an increase of 4 million voters over their 2014 totals to 20.4 million ballots cast.
Some states stood out with impressive turnout rates in their primaries. Montana, Missouri, Wyoming, and Oklahoma lead the pack with primary turnout rates of 33 percent each, and Washington is close behind at 32 percent.
America is a leader in the world in allowing its citizens to vote for party nominees in primaries. In most of the democratic world, elites and party leaders still pick the party candidates for general elections. And in the countries that have moved toward primary elections, they do not use these elections universally.
The bad news, however, is that while primary turnout is up from 2014, it is still not very high.
The 46 million ballots cast are far fewer than the 90 million or so that we expect to be cast in the general election this November, or the nearly 140 million who voted in the presidential general election of 2016. Fewer than one out of every five eligible voters participated in picking candidates.
Why isn’t voter participation in the primaries higher? In part because of lackluster voter motivation and in part for structural reasons.
Voter motivation in general is not high. Our last four presidential elections had the highest voter turnouts of any federal general elections since 1970. But even at the peak, over 35 percent of eligible voters did not vote.
Federal primaries face additional challenges when it comes to voter enthusiasm. Polls show dwindling respect for parties. More people are choosing not to register with a political party, even though many of these unaffiliated voters regularly support candidates of one of the two major parties.
Several structural impediments also inhibit higher primary turnout.
First among these is that many states do not hold open or semi-open primaries where unaffiliated voters can vote in primary elections.
Some party purists argue that only members of a political party should be able to vote in a primary election to select the nominee for that party. But, in reality, many unaffiliated voters lean strongly toward one party, and if a party wants to broaden its reach for the general election, allowing independent voters to cast a ballot in a primary could help with party building. It could also boost overall voter turnout and broaden the appeal of a party’s candidates to better prepare them for the general election.
combining state and federal primary dates and allowing voters to cast ballots even in uncontested races would bring many more voters into the primary process
Second, primary turnout is often driven by a prominent statewide race for senate or governor. Yet some states conduct separate federal and state primaries. Other states do not schedule primaries where a candidate is unopposed. Evidence shows that turnout can suffer without a top of the ticket race.
For this set of problems the worst is New York, which in 2018 saw only 3 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in a federal primary. New York’s contested gubernatorial primary was on a different date. In the federal primary, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand faced no opposition for the Democratic nomination, nor did her opponent on the Republican ticket, Chele Farley. In all 27 House of Representative districts in the state, there was an unopposed primary for one party or the other. In 14 of those districts there was no contest for either party’s nomination and therefore voters did not have a chance to cast a ballot at all.
We should not expect that established incumbents will always draw a primary challenge. But combining state and federal primary dates and allowing voters to cast ballots even in uncontested races would bring many more voters into the primary process. Some evidence exists that consolidating primary dates regionally would also help to increase turnout, an idea supported by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform in its report, Governing in a Polarized America.
America is among the most democratic countries in the world with respect to allowing voters to vote in primary elections to pick party candidates. Increasing primary turnout would give greater footing to our political parties and involve a larger number of voters in the whole election process.