Voter turnout for the just-completed 2014 primary election might not be low by Minnesota standards. But it will be low by national standards.
Phil Keisling was Oregon’s Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, and he now directs the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. Keisling, who pioneered all-vote-by-mail elections and other election reforms, has research that shows that at 12.9 percent, Minnesota might end up tied with Indiana and Iowa — and ahead of only New Jersey — when it comes to turnout for the August 14 primary.
That’s based on registered voters. If the number of eligible voters is used instead — a number that’s estimated to be 3,876,752 in Minnesota — the turnout drops to 10.36 percent.
While low, Minnesota is hardly alone is seeing primary election turnouts Keisling refers to as “micro turnouts.” Keisling found that the aggregate turnout in the 2011-12 election cycle, which included some presidential primary contests, was less than 20 percent. And “large” turnouts like those in his home state of Oregon still have two-thirds of registered voters deciding not to take part.
Curtis Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, concluded that through July, the nation was heading toward its lowest midterm primary turnout in history — around 14.8 percent of eligible voters. It also is likely to see the greatest number of states setting records for low turnout.
Keisling said he has examined the common excuses for poor turnout, especially in primaries: general dislike of politics, single-party districts, lackluster choices or no choices at all. All have some validity. But Keisling thinks two reforms could make a difference.
One of them is using all-mail-ballot, not a surprise given Keisling’s support for vote-by-mail while serving as Oregon Secretary of State. “On the ‘lack of interest’ in primaries, the vote by mail system can help — and considerably,” Keisling said. “Our election here in May was as dull, perhaps duller, than the Minnesota election overall, and we still got about 35 percent.”
But the core reform Keisling now advocates is something more radical: doing away with the primary altogether: “Let every candidate run,” he said. “Give every voter the same ballot, listing all candidates, and then let the top two advance to the general, regardless of their party registration.”
“It actually won’t cure the low turnout problem (at least over night),” he said. “But if the primary is perceived as being a good deal more important — and that there’s more robust competition, rather than a lot of incumbents filing with no opposition — over time I do believe you’ll see more interest and participation in these.”
Neither reform will be a magic cure, he said. “Long-established patterns of non-voting aren’t easy to disrupt, and there are other root causes, not the least of which is how increasingly distasteful and irrelevant politics seems to voters, especially those under 40,” he wrote in a May article in Governing Magazine. “However, both changes would at least provide more plausible paths for potential electoral success to candidates who are more interested in solutions and the actual business of governing rather than games of political ‘gotcha.’”
Gans isn’t so sure. “It’s unlikely that top-two will have an impact on turnout. It may have an impact in the way it was intended — to produce more moderate nominees,” he said.
In a paper published last month about low voter turnout, Gans wrote: “Making it easier is not the motto the nation should have about political involvement. Democracy is a demanding religion and the approach to strengthening it should demand more not less of its citizenry.”
Gans thinks longer poll hours — like the 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. window voters have in New York — helps. He also likes convenient voting centers, where voters can cast ballots just as they would in their local precincts. And he supports state voter pamphlets that he thinks help voters “cut through the demagoguery of political advertising.”
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he isn’t worried about the level of turnout in the primary. The turnout from Tuesday is in the middle of the historic range for state primaries, between 10 percent to 15 percent, he said. And he opposes top two because he believes primaries should be party processes.
“It never changes,” he said. “It never will.”