Ask Bob: 2018 Primary Election Turnout Recap

Aug 23, 2018

Vermont’s primary elections defied conventional wisdom by registering a higher than expected voter turnout. We turn to VPR reporter Bob Kinzel to help us parse the details of this election and what made people turn up at the polls.

Why primaries are when they are

Vermont used to hold primary elections on the second Tuesday in September; now they’re held on the second Tuesday in August. What gives?

Elections were moved up to be in compliance with federal rules to ensure that general election ballots could be sent out to overseas and military voters and be returned in time to be counted. Extra weeks were built in just in case there was ever a recount, because that could take a number of weeks and there'd be no way to meet the overseas ballot deadline under those circumstances.

Another factor is that Vermont uses paper ballots. Other states, such as Massachusetts, hold their primaries in September but they allow overseas military voters to vote electronically. Vermont has a law that says that all voters must use a paper ballot, so the electronic system is not allowed.

Do voters really show up to the polls in August?

Some people felt the middle of August was the worst possible time to hold elections — people are on vacation, nobody's paying attention to these political races. In the past, this has held somewhat true. In 2014, primaries were held at the end of August and voter turnout was 9 percent.

What makes voters turn up for primaries

There's a pretty clear connection between the number of competitive statewide and legislative races and the turnout. In 2010, for instance, there was an open race for governor with five Democrats running, and turnout was 24 percent. In 2016, there was also an open race for governor, and turnout was 26 percent.

Now, this year there wasn't an open gubernatorial race, but five Democrats were running and there were also a number of very spirited state Senate elections. Turnout this year was high: 22 percent.

Is 22 percent voter turnout really 'high'?!

Twenty-two percent is considered strong. But remember that the purpose of primaries is the selection of the major party candidates and it's really a party function. It's different from a general election.

What to expect in November

Both parties are putting a lot of energy into both their House and Senate races, and that could drive voter turnout. We're seeing very competitive races: The Democrats want to elect more House members so they can have a veto-proof majority in that chamber; the Republicans don't want that to happen.

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