Forty-six million voters cast ballots this year in primaries for federal office. It’s an impressive number, and represents a significant increase from 2014. But to strengthen our political parties and our democracy, we must — and can — do better.
First, the good news. Those 46 million votes represent 19.9 percent of eligible voters, up from 32 million or 14.3 percent of voters who participated in federal primaries four years ago.
A Bipartisan Policy Center analysis of official election data found that participation was up across the board — in 41 states, every geographic region, and among both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats especially showed increased enthusiasm, which may benefit them in November — with 23 million ballots cast in Democratic primaries to 20.5 million for the GOP.
The bad news, however, is that while primary turnout was up from 2014, it is still not very high. That’s partly because the primary process across the country is not as open as it can be and remains confusing to many voters.
So how do we increase voter turnout in primaries? BPC’s Commission on Political Reform made several recommendations that would address the structural impediments that inhibit higher primary turnout.
First, states need a more inclusive process for selecting nominees for the general election. Nine states hold fully closed primaries in which only registered members of the party can participate, and 17 have closed or partially closed primary rules.
“The primary process across the country is not as open as it can be and remains confusing to many voters.”
Some party purists argue that only party members should be able to vote in a primary to select their nominees. But, in reality, many unaffiliated voters lean strongly toward one side, and if a party wants to broaden its reach for the general election, allowing independents to cast ballots in its primaries could help with party building and boosting turnout.
In the same vein, states should move away from low-turnout methods of candidate selection. States such as Virginia and Minnesota either give the party options to use conventions entirely or to whittle choices ahead of a primary. Political conventions typically solicit the opinions of a few thousand party faithful. Caucuses have somewhat higher participation than conventions, but generally attract significantly fewer voters than primaries. Political parties would help themselves by moving away from these options so their candidates face a wider group of primary voters.
Second, primary turnout is often driven by a prominent statewide race for Senate or governor. Yet some states conduct separate federal and state primaries or they do not schedule primaries when a candidate is unopposed. Evidence shows that turnout can suffer without a top-of-the-ticket race.
Take New York, for example, the worst offender. Only 3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the June federal primaries, where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ran unopposed at the top of the Democratic ticket. The state primaries — which featured a contested Democratic gubernatorial race — didn’t take place until September.
New York’s low primary turnout was compounded by the fact that each of its 27 congressional districts had an unopposed primary for one party or the other. Fourteen of those districts had no contest for either party’s nomination, so voters there did not have a chance to cast a ballot at all.
Finally, and maybe most dramatically, states should consider joining together to establish a national primary date or at the very least regional primary dates. Some evidence exists that consolidating primary dates regionally would help to increase turnout.
This year, the federal primary season spanned from March to September, leaving many casual voters unaware of the timing of their state’s primaries. A regionally consistent or national primary day would increase attention and awareness, potentially boosting overall participation.
America is among the most democratic countries in the world when it comes to allowing voters to pick party candidates in primary elections. It’s time we lived up to that reputation by working to make it easier for people to turn out for such races. Not only would our political parties become stronger, it would give more people a say in the whole election process.