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The First Shall Be Last: The Dangerous Decline in Primary Turnout

by Paul Fidalgo // Published September 7, 2007
A FairVote Innovative Analysis


Facts in the Spotlight

Voter turnout statewide primaries in 1966: 33.5%

Voter turnout in 38 states with such primaries in 2006: 15.4%
(the lowest in history)

Ratio of voter turnout for those over 70 vs. those under 45 in Oregon"s 2006 primaries: 3.5 to 1


As the presidential nomination season is heating up, have you ever thought about the word "primary"? Going to the dictionary, one finds that the first definition is, "first or highest in rank, quality, or importance."

Well, in the case of voter turnout, the first shall be last.

Primary elections indeed determine who wins the great majority of our nation's elections for Congress and state legislature - most districts are safe for one party, and winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election. But in contrast to turnout in November elections, turnout in primaries is sinking like a stone.

Plunging Turnout in Primaries: In 2006, for example, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reports that turnout in statewide primaries around the nation plunged by one-sixth to an all-time low of 15.4%, down from the previous low of 18.6% in 2002 - and less than half of the 33.5% turnout in 1966.

Oregon had the nation's sixth highest primary turnout in 2006 at 23.5%. Of those Oregon voters, more than two-thirds were older than 57 years old, with more total voters older than 70 than under 45 -- and those older voters turned out at a rate of three and a half times the rate of the younger set. Political consultant Rick Ridder estimates that the median age of voters in primaries is more than 60 - some 10 years older than the median age of voters in general elections.

These kinds of trends are similar by race and income. As one example, FairVote analyzed relative turnout in Oakland (CA) in the June 2004 primary and the November 2004 general election. Voter turnout in June was at least 47% lower than turnout in the November general election in every census tract predominantly made up of racial minorities. In contrast, turnout was 32% lower in predominantly white census tracts.

The Mounting Cost of Primaries: Primaries aren't cheap for taxpayers, either. In Washington State, for example, the cost of the 2004 congressional primaries was estimated at more than $10 million, approaching $2 per resident.

This all begs the question, just why is the government involved in primaries anyway? Primaries are a process by which private associations - e.g., political parties - select their nominees. Given how general elections often are lopsided, one might think it makes sense to force parties to be as democratic as possible in choosing their nominees. But when 85% are skipping the show, something is clearly not working.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is one person who is asking the question. The top elections official in a state consistently among those with the highest turnout, Dunlap last month proposed Maine"s government get out of the business of regulating and paying for party primaries altogether.

The Pierce County Solution: Across the nation in Washington, Pierce County (home of Tacoma and nearly 800,000 people) last year voted to showcase a new approach in 2008: giving voters in county elections a full choice ballot in a "blanket general" election in November, with instant runoff voting in place to determine a majority winner. Voters will have full voter choice in a high-turnout general election.

Recommended by Robert"s Rules of Order and the League of Women Voters in several states, instant runoff voting (IRV) allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. If the voter"s first choice candidate doesn"t make the cut, their second choice is counted instead, and so on until one candidate earns an absolute majority of votes and is declared the winner of the race.

If the decisions are made by those who show up, as the old saying goes, it makes sense in a democracy to have a voting system that helps to ensure that more people participate. IRV has the potential to do just that.

Read more about instant runoff voting at instantrunoff.com or fairvote.org/irv. Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.