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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 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.

One reason for surprise is that Republicans redesigned their primary process to help ensure that a front runner could not easily rack up early wins and knock the other candidates out of the process. Add to that the new and unexpected role of Super PACs, which kept the candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum well funded and alive, and which arguably extended the time it took Mitt Romney to secure the nomination. All of these institutional factors point to a longer list of competitive primaries which should have brought on more turnout, not less.

The political parties will have to think seriously in the future whether other institutional fixes will drive up turnout or whether they need to address a lack of enthusiasm amongst their voters.

The most interesting piece of Curtis Gans’s analysis is that general election voter turnout will be down. We will know the answer shortly after the election in the forthcoming companion report on general election voter turnout.

If Gans is correct, many people will be disappointed. After years of handwringing about low voter turnout, 2004 and 2008 were very good turnout years, at least for America which lags behind many other democracies in its rates of turnout. In 2004, 60.4% and in 2008, 62.3% of eligible voters cast ballots. No presidential election since we allowed 18 year olds to vote in 1972 had seen turnout break 60%, and several presidential elections saw numbers below 55%.

These good numbers have many believing that we are entering a new era of higher turnout. There are several potential explanations. Our closely divided and polarized system is motivating more people to vote. Our campaigns are much more skilled at contacting and turning out voters.

But Gans’s worry is that 2004 and 2008 might be anomalous results and the decline in primary turnout in 2012 might presage a drop in general election voter turnout back to the levels we became resigned to in the 1990s.

We will wait eagerly to see if Gans is correct. But before we know the results, I have two thoughts about Gans’s thesis, one at odds and another supportive.

On the negative side, while Gans is right to worry about the primary turnout findings, there is no strong proven link between primary turnout and general election turnout. We have had low turnout primaries followed by higher turnout general elections and vice versa.

But more plausible is Gans’s insight that voter turnout is often driven more by voter enthusiasm rather than by institutional factors, strong get-out-the-vote programs by the parties, or ease of voting. And if Gans is right that 2004 and 2008 were elections that particularly stirred the hearts of voters, then he is surely right that some future election will be less interesting to voters. That prospect is hard to imagine in 2012, when many voters on both sides see this as a critical election and where a number of indicators point to a competitive election. But despite the expectation by many of enthusiasm in 2012, it is worth remembering how extraordinary 2004 and 2008 were. In 2004, both sides viewed the election as crucial to their future. In 2008, record Democratic turnout pushed the overall voter turnout number higher. Might it not be possible that 2012, while significant, will fall short in voter enthusiasm of 2004 and 2008? And if Gans is wrong about 2012, then we still may find ourselves with a “boring” election in the future that drops turnout down to low levels.

The other troubling possibility that Gans refers to is that voters are not only less excited about this election than the past two, but that they are being turned off and disgusted with our political system. If turnout drops for reasons of alienation from the system, our problems are even greater than we might imagine.

John Fortier is Director of BPC’s Democracy Project.

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.