Friday, June 1, 2012

On the Anemic Voter Turnout in the May Primaries

Voter turnout in the United States is a problem, assuming, of course, that high voter turnout is a good thing. If you don’t believe that, then this post is not for you. The voter turnout in the May 29th primaries was not good, especially in the Democratic Party’s primary. Here are the stats.

First, only 2,030,927 Texans voted in both parties’ primaries. That’s an anemic 15.54 percent of the 13,065,425 registered voters in Texas. Turnout was particularly low in the Democratic Party’s primary, where only 587,146 voted. If 33 percent of Texas’ registered voters are Democrats (strong and not-so-strong Democrats), then there are approximately 4,311,590 Democrats who were registered to vote in Texas. That means that voter turnout in the Democratic primary was 13.62 percent. In the Republican Party’s primary, 1,443,781 voters participated. If 36 percent of Texas’ registered voters are Republicans (strong and not-so-strong Republicans), then there are approximately 4,703,553 Republicans who were registered to vote in Texas. That means that voter turnout in the Republican primary was 30.70 percent. That is much higher than in the Democratic Primary, but it is no cause for celebration.

Second, why was voter turnout so low and how does this compare with previous primary elections in presidential years? Let’s answer the second part of the question first. In 2008, 33.23 percent of registered voters voted in both parties’ presidential primaries. In 2004, 12.45 percent voted in both parties’ presidential primaries, and in 2000, 16.48 percent voted. For the three most recent presidential primaries, the average turnout was 20.72 percent. So, 2012 was below the average for the last three presidential primaries, but it was higher than in 2004 and only slightly lower than in 2000.
On the first part of the question, there are several answers: (1) the presidential nomination for both parties had already been decided by the time that Texas voters voted in their primaries. In 2008, John McCain did not clinch the nomination until March 4th, the date of the Texas primary, and the Democratic Party’s nominee was not decided, and the contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was very close. As a result, turnout was high in both parties’ primaries, and more Texans voted in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary. (2) the timing of the election was different, having been moved to May 29th because of lawsuits over redistricting in Texas. Furthermore, holding the primary elections after the four-day Memorial Day weekend did not help turnout. (3) there were few close contests in the Democratic primary elections, reducing interest in the election. There was much more excitement in the Republican primary, especially in the contest to select a U.S. Senate candidate to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

One could consider the early voting turnout a bright spot; however, early voting has not increased voter turnout. Nearly half (49 percent) of Texans voted early in the political parties’ primaries this year. Fifty-one percent of Democrats voted early, and 48 percent of Republicans voted early.

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