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Primary Election Results Show Improved Voter Turnout, But Not Enough

The Brief

While primary turnout is up from 2014, it is still not very high, in part because of lackluster voter motivation and in part for structural reasons. 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.

  • The highest turnout states were MT, MO, WY, OK, and WA.

  • The lowest turnout states were NY, VA, NJ, IA, and NC.

  • The 2018 primary elections saw 9.4 million more Democratic votes cast compared to 2014, while Republican votes increased by 4 million.

  • 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.

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.

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Voter turnout was lower then 12% then by the primaries

Photo: Getty Images

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.

The 2018 primary elections saw 9.4 million more Democratic votes cast compared to 2014, while Republican votes increased by 4 million.
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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.”
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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.

Tracking the Trump Administration’s Progress on Permitting

Empower key decision-makers: In recent actions, the administration has emphasized the roles of CEQ and OMB in permitting modernization, and, in particular, solving disputes that arise in multiagency reviews. Importantly, Executive Order 13807 provides federal decision-makers with a new tool to hold agencies accountable: OMB, in consultation with FPISC, must establish a performance accountability system and score each agency on its implementation of the executive order. Poor performance could result in the imposition of penalties, and will additionally be considered in formulating agency budgets. Recent steps also continue to elevate the importance of lead agencies in shepherding projects through the permitting process.
Continue expanding the Permitting Dashboard: Executive Order 13807 requires all projects subject to 23 U.S.C. 139 and “covered projects” under 42 U.S.C. 4370m to be tracked on the Permitting Dashboard, with monthly updates of project milestones, and gives the FPISC Executive Director the authority to add others. This commitment to using and expanding the dashboard is a step in the right direction and should be continued; it transparently tracks permitting requirements, timelines, and participating agencies’ responsibilities.
Institutionalize and expand the use of FAST Act Permitting Dashboard authorities: Executive Order 13807 and CEQ’s initial list of implementation actions shows a commitment to using and aligning the One Federal Decision initiative with existing FPISC authorities and the Permitting Dashboard. These steps similarly focus on advancing several key, bipartisan FAST Act priorities: greater permitting schedule adherence; transparent tracking of permitting requirements, timelines, and responsibilities; and enhanced predictability.
Encourage further uptake to the Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program: DOT, in its September 28 notice of proposed rulemaking, included a change to the Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program and issued, for public comment, regulations for a related pilot program, which will allow states to substitute their environmental laws for NEPA under certain conditions. These are certainly steps in the right direction as DOT considers additional ways to encourage uptake to the program. Organizations like AASHTO have offered their own recommendations on additional program improvement—though such changes may require legislative action.
Increase data collection and transparency: While Executive Order 13807 included a federal commitment to transparency and accountability in environmental reviews and agency decisions—including new cost estimates, continued Permitting Dashboard tracking, a new performance scoring system, mandatory explanations for agency delays, and government-wide assessments of process inefficiencies—these efforts are not all in place. If the administration can successfully implement these measures, they would go a long way in increasing the broader understanding of what can hold up a project and informing any future reform efforts.
Make simultaneous reviews the norm: Executive Order 13807 laid out a general federal commitment to providing environmental review and permit approvals in a “coordinated, consistent, predictable, and timely manner,” setting a goal of completing approvals in two years or less. Meeting such a goal will certainly require simultaneous multiagency reviews. However, there is little evidence thus far that this has yet become the “norm.”
Complete implementation of other FAST Act permitting provisions: Though implementation is still incomplete, the administration’s two rulemakings in September show some progress. Admittedly, further progress faces a key challenge: Despite the potential benefits of Executive Order 13807, the administration must take great care in ensuring that its implementation is not duplicative of actions required by the FAST Act, add additional bureaucracy to the process, or disrupt the continued implementation of both MAP-21 and the FAST Act.
Appoint a new director of the FPISC: The FPISC Executive Director, a presidentially-appointed position, remains unfilled. The continued implementation of the FAST Act and now Executive Order 13807 would benefit greatly from the leadership a new director could provide the interagency council.
Setup the Environmental Review Improvement Fund: The FAST Act’s Title 41 provided the authority—yet to be utilized—to establish a fee structure for project proponents to reimburse the United States for reasonable costs incurred in conducting environmental reviews. Funds collected would be deposited into a Permitting Improvement Fund and made available to cover the expenses of the FPISC or transfer funds to agencies conducting environmental reviews to help make their processes more timely and efficient.
Reopen DOT Order 5610.1D for additional comment before finalizing: In December 2016, DOT provided notice and a 21-day comment period for Order 5610.1D, which would update procedures for considering environmental impacts and implement a number of key FAST Act permitting provisions. At that time, a number of organizations, including AASHTO and ARTBA, expressed concern at the short comment period and warned that the document could create confusion and slow down project delivery as currently worded. While it appears that DOT has since sought critical feedback from transportation stakeholders on technical concerns with the order as well as a host of other regulatory measures, it is unclear where DOT stands on finalizing the order or how it will align DOT’s procedures for considering environmental impacts with the executive orders and rulemakings issued since the president took office.
Review regulations, such as 23 CFR §636, governing the assumption of NEPA responsibilities by private entities: With increased interest in the potential of public-private partnerships (P3s), federal rulemakings pertaining to the ability of a private partner in a P3 contract to assume NEPA responsibilities, such as in the preparation of NEPA documents, should be reviewed and, where appropriate, amended.
Improve PEL data collection and guidance, particularly for P3 projects: The Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) initiative supports a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that uses information, analysis, and other products developed during project planning to inform the environmental review process. Additional guidance, case studies, and data collection may help to further disseminate and promote valuable PEL practices.
Extend lessons learned from SHRP2’s C19 effort to other areas of transportation and infrastructure: The second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) has done considerable work in developing solutions to expediting project delivery (C19). This work may be further disseminated across agencies, adapted to other areas of infrastructure, and leveraged through the collaborative network created by the multiagency FPISC.
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