Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

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.


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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The Shape of the Race

By Curtis Gans

Throughout the summer and through the major party conventions the prevailing view inside the Washington Beltway was that the 2012 presidential election would be a high turnout, extremely close contest that could very well be decided by which party does a better job of motivating its base constituencies to vote. There is increasing reason to question each of these assumptions.

The case for high turnout rested, in essence, on three factors: the condition of the economy in general and unemployment in particular, the deep polarization between the two major parties and summer polls of citizen interest in the election. Historically, almost every recent election that was held coincident with high unemployment and perceptions of recession (e.g. 1982, 1992 and 2008) had high turnout. Polarization (2004) and polarization-plus in the unique and perceived transformative candidacy of Barack Obama (2008) produced the highest turnouts since 1960 and 1968 respectively. And summer polls by the Pew Center and Gallup showed potential voter interest running at about the same level (around 27 percent of the electorate paying close attention to the race) as at a similar time during the two previous presidential elections.

Read the full post here.


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Unclear Link Between Primary and General Election Turnout

By John Fortier

A report on primary turnout by the country’s long standing expert on voter turnout, Curtis Gans, raises my eyebrows for two reasons. First, primary turnout was down and at a record low. Second, Gans’s suggestion that the low primary turnout may presage lower voter turnout in November goes against the hopes and analysis of most experts.

On the record low primary turnout, the first question that demands to be asked is: “Why? Why in 2012 was presidential and other statewide primary turnout lower than ever?” One obvious reason cited by Gans is that we had only a race on the Republican side, not the Democratic. But we have had that situation frequently, in 2004 and 1996 most recently, and still 2012 was lower than those comparable years.

Read the full post here.


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Electoral Dysfunction

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.

Read the full post here.


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Examining the Role of Primary Elections

By Edward B. Foley

The Bipartisan Policy Center has produced a report that invites questions about how we conduct primaries and why, in the context of a well-designed electoral system suited for the U.S. in this second decade of the twenty-first century. I’m not a statistician, and thus I will take as given the accuracy of its overarching statistical conclusion: from a national perspective, voter turnout was essentially at a “record low” during this year’s primary process. The question I wish to address is what electoral policy implications flow from this record low turnout.

Read the full post here.


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Overestimating the Effect of New State Laws

By Allison Hayward

One might have thought that a polarizing national election, featuring two nominees with vastly different personalities, backgrounds, and policies, might have been preceded by a bracing primary election contest. Well, it doesn’t seem that was the case.

Why not? Firstly, because as the charts in this study demonstrate, volatility in turnout tends to come from one party’s voters – Democratic primary voters. Republican nomination fights are, unfortunately, pretty predictable. With rare exception, Republicans tend to nominate the candidate whose “turn” is up. So the suspense (when there is any) in a Republican primary is concentrated in a few early contests, but afterwards feels a little like paging through a suspense novel after having read the last chapter.

Read the full post here.


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Findings on Historic Low Primary Turnout Highlight Broader Problem

By Rob Richie

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate has joined with the Bipartisan Policy Center to issue his latest report on voter turnout in the United States. There are those who disagree with Gans on some of the finer points of his methodology and on his analyses of proposed electoral reforms, but that misses the broader point: Gans has made a remarkably valuable contribution to our discourse and understanding of voter participation for decades. His latest report is no exception.

Read the full post here.


Read the Report: National Primary Turnout Hits New Record Low