Voices & Choices

Primary Focus: Understanding Voter Turnout

Primary Focus: Understanding Voter Turnout

Zoom In: Results from Recent Primaries 

On “Western Tuesday,” voters in Arizona and Utah from both parties and Democrats in Idaho cast ballots in their presidential nomination contests. Republican candidate Donald Trump secured Arizona’s 58 delegates with a 47.1% plurality of the vote in the winner-take-all state. His rival Ted Cruz won all 40 delegates with 69.2% in the “proportional” GOP caucus in Utah. Because he received more than 50% of the vote, party rules change the contest into winner-take-all.

For Democrats, Bernie Sanders won the most delegates. Sanders received 24 delegates in Utah (79.8%) and 17 delegates in Idaho (78%) compared to Hillary Clinton’s allocation of 5 in each state. However, Clinton won 57.6% of the vote in Arizona and 41 delegates while Sanders won 39.9% of the vote and 26 delegates.

Zoom Out: Republicans See Record Numbers

The Republican party has seen record turnout across many of its primary contests, particularly in early voting states. Compared to the 2012 presidential primaries, turnout in 2016 has significantly increased in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada.

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FairVote lists several major factors that drive voter turnout in elections, including local voting laws and demographics. One of the most important factors in determining how many voters show up to the polls, however, is the competitiveness of the election. The 2016 GOP presidential primary contest has been remarkably competitive, with several strong contenders that have had a shot at the nomination.More voters than ever are making their voices heard. Unfortunately, 83% of congressional elections
in 2016 will be uncompetitive, according to our Monopoly Politics analysis. If we could increase competitiveness in down-ballot races by adopting fair representation voting in all U.S. House elections, we might see the same effect on turnout in November’s congressional races as well.

Focus: Low Turnout in Presidential Primaries Contributes to Polarization

The very fact that voters are segregated by party affiliation to choose nominees means the emerging candidate pool will naturally have viewpoints that skew to their party’s more vocal base. Whether it is a local mayoral election or a statewide senate race, candidates hoping to secure their party’s nomination often veer to the extreme. The presidential contest is embodies to this pattern. For example, Clinton began embracing more liberal views (i.e.
TPP opposition) to court progressive voters who make up the Democratic base. On the Republican side, candidates debated over who had the strictest stance on immigration reform.

This trend is a result of a small voting population determining the nominee for an entire party. Earlier in this post, we analyzed the record turnout, but it is important to understand those numbers in context. Primary turnout this year is high in comparison to past years, but it is low in comparison to all eligible voters. For example, if you invited 10 friends to your birthday and no more than 3 people showed up, would you consider that high turnout?

To date, an estimated 27.3% of eligible voters have participated in their state’s primary or caucus. The eligible voters who do vote are often more partisan than the general voting population. Therefore, the candidates they support, and who ultimately receive the nomination, are more partisan. These candidates usually emerge as the only options on Election Day representing vastly different views from the majority of people in the party, alienating centrist voters, and discouraging compromise once sworn into office.

Unless we change the basic structure of our elections by opening primaries to independents (as some states do) and adopting top four primary system with ranked choice voting, we won’t really change the core incentives for polarization. However, we can make primaries less polarizing in their current format by increasing turnout and eliminating plurality winners. For example, states can implement seventeen year-old primary voting, early voting, open primaries, and automatic universal voter registration to ensure elections are accessible to all voters and registration data is up-to-date. Also, laws to ensure ballot security, like photo identification mandates, should not be implemented if they disparately impact marginalized communities. States could also adopt ranked choice voting for nomination contests, which would empower voters to express their full preference among candidates by ranking as many or as few as they like. This would allow voters to be confident that a winning candidate would garner a majority of votes (more than 50%) instead of a mere plurality. This voting method helps elect candidates who have a broad appeal to voters.

A nominating system that incentivizes extremism coupled with low levels of turnout have a polarizing effect on the Presidency. States across the nation should consider and implement systemic reforms that replace polarizing elements of our primary process with elements of inclusion and consensus building because our country works best when it works together.

Image Source: Ronald Woan


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