What Voter Surge?

Once again, abysmal turnout in primary elections underlines the need to re-think the fundamentals of how we hold elections.
June 1, 2018
People at the voting booth.
(TNS/Genaro Molina)
By Phil Keisling  |  Contributor
Director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government

Those who are predicting, expecting -- or simply hoping for -- a surge of voter turnout, especially among younger citizens, in this year's elections need to reflect on these sobering percentage figures: Oregon (34), Idaho (32), Illinois (25), West Virginia (24), Nebraska (24), Kentucky (23), Arkansas (22), Ohio (19), Georgia (19), Indiana (18), Texas (17), Pennsylvania (17) and North Carolina (14).

These are the voter turnout rates for the 13 states that held party-nomination primary elections through May 22. (For states where official tallies aren't yet available, I've divided the number of ballots cast in the highest-profile race by the number of registered voters.)

It's not news that turnout rates for primaries and for general elections in non-presidential-voting years, no matter how heated the races being contested, are far lower than in presidential years. For the last non-presidential primary cycle, in 2014, I and my colleagues at Portland State University found that all but a handful of states fell into the same pattern: overall turnout rates between 15 percent and 25 percent. The median age -- half older, half younger -- of those casting ballots in these contests? About 62.

Anyone who follows politics closely knows that today's party primaries frequently have far more consequence than the general elections that follow in November. Win the dominant party's primary -- and in 2018 there are 35 U.S. Senate seats, 435 U.S. House seats, 36 governorships and more than 6,000 state legislative seats up for grabs -- and in many cases the general election is simply a formality.

The likelihood of low primary turnout also plays a role in setting and intensifying the increasingly hyperpartisan tenor of our politics. Even if a primary is contested -- and many aren't -- savvy politicians focus on a relative handful of likely voters and largely ignore the rest. A typical congressional district contains between 400,000 and 500,000 registered voters. Pennsylvania's newly drawn 18 congressional districts generated 21 contested party primaries on May 15, and in 13 of those races the winner received fewer than 25,000 votes.

Given the enormous role these primary contests play in determining election winners, what might help boost primary-election turnout? The evidence is strong that we should stop asking voters to travel to the polls. Instead, we should bring the ballots to the voters.

Three states -- Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- now hold "vote at home" elections, in which ballots are mailed to every active registered voter. In addition to simply mailing back their marked ballots, voters have the option of physically returning them to any one of hundreds of convenient drop sites or voting centers. Most now use the latter option, which is why "vote at home" is a more apt moniker than "vote by mail."

My own vote-at-home state, Oregon, is the only one of that trio so far to have held its primary. While our 34 percent turnout rate wasn't exactly stellar, so far it's the highest in this election cycle, double that of many other states. And Oregon had one of its hands, and arguably even one and a half, tied behind its small-d democratic back.

Oregon is one of just 11 states with fully closed primary elections that lock out non-affiliated voters (NAVs), those not registered by party. And in 2015, we became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration via the Department of Motor Vehicles. As a result, we have nearly 600,000 more registered voters than we did in 2014 -- most of them NAVs.

Even though Oregon voters cast 150,000 more ballots this year than in 2014, this huge surge of NAVs added to our denominator pulled down the state's overall voting rate. However, turnout among registered Democrats (43 percent) and Republicans (47 percent) actually rose compared to 2014 -- more than double the partisan turnout rates in another closed-primary state, Pennsylvania.

What happened in Nebraska's May 15 primary is perhaps the clearest evidence of the extraordinary power of mailing all primary voters their ballots rather than requiring them to traipse to the polls or pre-arrange to receive an absentee ballot. Garden County received permission from Secretary of State John Gale to run a vote-at-home election in its May 15 primary. Turnout in Nebraska's other 92 counties averaged 24 percent; among Garden County's 2,000 voters, it was 59 percent.

Even for vote-at-home advocates, that's a startling number -- more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average, 48 percent, in the 2014 midterm general election. And it suggests that combining vote-at-home ballot delivery with giving NAVs a meaningful and convenient way to participate in primary elections could have a big impact on primary turnout rates. That's why the upcoming primaries in California and Colorado will be especially worth watching.

Five California counties, the largest being Sacramento and Napa, will use the vote-at-home system in that state's June 5 "top two" primary, which puts every voter on an equal footing, able to vote for any candidate who's filed. (The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, then advance to the November general election.) Just how high turnout goes in these counties -- and how those rates compare with neighboring, non-vote-at-home counties -- will provide a classic "natural experiment."

Top-two primary systems are still a rarity in our election systems. So Colorado's June 26 primary may prove to be an even more revealing natural experiment. As a result of a 2016 voter-approved initiative, the state's 1.2 million NAVs will get a thick envelope containing both parties' ballots, from which they will be allowed to choose one.

So don't expect Oregon's current number-one ranking in primary-election turnout to last. But will the top honors in 2018 go to a traditional, polling-place-bound state, most of which will hold their primaries in the summer months between June 10 and Sept. 15 when most citizens are pondering vacations and juggling family responsibilities? I'll wager that Colorado's first-in-American-history style of primary election is far more likely to be the one to out-shine the rest of us.