Voices & Choices

Presidential Primary Voter Turnout at 29 Percent

Presidential Primary Voter Turnout at 29 Percent

July 22, 2016


Michelle C. Whittaker, (301) 270-4616 or [email protected]


Presidential Primary Turnout at 29 Percent

Disparity in Turnout for Major Parties

Takoma Park, MD - FairVote has compiled and analyzed state-by-state data on voter turnout for the presidential nomination contests,including both primaries and caucuses. Today's report reviews trends in voter turnout in primaries nationally since 2000, as well as differences in turnout by party. The analysis includes a deeper examination of the 23 states which held competitive primaries in both 2008 and 2016, exploring the effects of primary type (open, closed, or hybrid) and voter access laws. A full report can be downloaded from FairVote’s website.

Record Breaking Republican Turnout; Decreases in Democratic Turnout

Overall, slightly fewer voters participated in the 2016 presidential primary elections compared to 2008 with nationwide turnout dropping to 29 percent of eligible voters. (Estimates of eligible voters are from Dr. Michael McDonald and the United States Elections Projectwhich is the go-to source for estimates of eligible voters and for turnout information since 2000.) Almost all states, however, saw higher participation in Republican primaries and lower participation in Democratic primaries. Turnout data shows that more Americans than ever before participated in the 2016 Republican primaries. In summary, compared to 2008:

  • 6 million fewer voters participated in Democratic primaries,

  • 8 million more voters participated in Republican primaries, and

  • 29% of eligible voters nationally participated in the primaries, down from 31% of eligible voters in 2008 (when there were fewer eligible voters).

Wisconsin experienced increased participation by more than 10% compared to the 2008 primary elections. In Wisconsin, 49% of eligible voters participated in the primaries, the second-highest in the nation behind only New Hampshire, where 52% participated in the first-in-the-nation primary. Primary participation was lowest in Louisiana (18.2%), South Dakota (18.9%), New Jersey (21.0%) and Connecticut (21.0%).

Evidence of Voter Switching in Open Primary States

Republican participation increases and Democratic participation decreases are most notable in states with open primaries:

  • Republican participation increased 29% in closed primaries and 68% in open primaries

  • Democratic participation decreased 11% in closed primaries and 31% in open primaries

For these states, the relatively small changes in turnout contribute to evidence of party switching, wherein likely 2008 Democratic primary voters choose to cast ballots in Republican primary contests.

Voter ID Laws Have Minimal Impact Nationwide but Disproportionate Impact within Parties

Among the voter access laws studied, laws requiring voter identification impacted participation levels among Democrats and Republicans differently.

  • Overall turnout impact was not measurable. The mean 2016 turnout in states with ID law changes is 32%, states that never implemented an ID law averaged 34% turnout, and states that maintained ID laws averaged 27% turnout.

  • Republican participation increased by an average of 38% in states that did not change existing voter ID laws, with a similar margin for states without ID laws. Republican turnout increased 77% in states that introduced voter ID laws since 2008.

  • Democratic participation declined 31% in states that strengthened ID laws and 2% in states that made no changes to ID laws. Turnout declined 6% in states that never implemented an ID law.

Our report with detailed analysis and comprehensive voter turnout information (using data published by each state) is available for download on FairVote’s website.

FairVote is a national non-partisan organization advocating for electoral solutions that give voters more voice and greater choice in elections.


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