In May and June, as 26 states hold primary elections to determine the federal candidates for 2022’s general elections, fewer than one in five voters will likely show up. When broken down by political party, many candidates will be nominated by less than 10 percent of the electorate, a very low turnout that in most states will be dominated by voters who are middle-aged and older.
“Why do we tolerate a situation where 80 percent or more of these important offices are decided by elections where only one out of five voters turn out?” asked Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state, an ex-journalist, and a Democrat. “There are candidates out there literally saying, ‘If I can get 4, 5, 6 percent of the voters in the primary, that’s all I need to win’ [and likely win in partisan districts in the upcoming fall general elections…]. All they need to do is have a rabid 4 or 5 percent of the eligible citizens in their district cast the ballot.”
Keisling’s frustrations are not new. The handful of political scientists and policy analysts who study primaries say these contests are among the most important overlooked cornerstones of American democracy. While they cite reasons for the lack of attention and for low turnout—such as erratic scheduling and inconsistent offices on the ballot—Keisling blames the major political parties and press, for varying reasons, for underplaying voting in primaries.
“I’ve never met a candidate who says, ‘I’m looking forward to a competitive primary,’” he said, adding that both parties are now focusing on November’s elections via fundraising missives that imply voting may be futile: Democrats decrying voter suppression; Republicans decrying voter fraud. And he faults the media, too, such as reports on Texas’s March 1 primary, where 18 percent of its electorate voted, which either omitted the low turnout or celebrated it.
“It’s settling for thinking that somehow if 18 percent turnout is higher than the last six elections, you ought to cheer,” Keisling said. “We are about to have dozens of primaries in the next two months. And if the past pattern holds true, there will be exponentially more ink spilled on speculating what the results mean for November, and almost no mention of how abysmal the turnout was, and what it means for who votes and who doesn’t.”
Academics and policy analysts sympathize with Keisling’s critique, although their analyses of the primary scheduling, voter turnout, and reforms tend to be more measured—and aimed at the structural aspects of these contests rather than partisan considerations or press coverage.
“It is common to hear pundits, politicians, and experts decry low voter turnout in the United States relative to other democracies,” said a November 2018 report by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), “2018 Primary Election Turnout and Reforms,” which suggested that opening the contests to all voters (not just party members), combining state and federal primaries, holding primaries in the summer, and other reforms could possibly boost turnout.
“There are many reasons to desire higher voter turnout in all elections,” BPC said, “but primary election turnout in particular is more in need of attention than general election turnout. It is far too low considering the importance of primaries in choosing representatives at all levels of government.”
Low turnout in these nominating contests also undermines confidence in voting and governing, it added, and, in our political era besieged with disinformation, helps fringe candidates.
“[L]ow-turnout midterm primaries erode the credibility of U.S. democracy and may allow more extreme candidates to reach general elections and attain office,” its report said. “Higher participation means that the primary electorate would more likely match that of the general electorate and the population at large.”
Keisling has the same concerns but is blunter. The lack of attention to 2022’s primaries is empowering, rather than holding accountable, the state and federal officials who knowingly have perpetuated falsehoods about the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election—but not theirs, even though they were on the same ballot.
“There’s no penalty to be paid for that kind of partisanship around the basic mechanics of elections,” he said. “It maps back to the fact [to candidates and parties thinking] that ‘I just need my 5 percent [of voters] in my primary. I don’t want other people to show up.’”
Low turnout expected this year
Nonetheless, policy experts and academics don’t expect a surge of reform-minded voters this May and June. Turnout will likely be lower than in 2018, the last midterm primary, they said.
The nationwide turnout “of all eligible voters” in 2018 was 19.9 percent, BPC noted. “That compares with 14.3 percent in 2014 and 18.3 percent in 2010.” Nationally, 46.3 million people voted in 2018, with Democrats casting 23 million ballots and Republicans casting 20.5 million ballots. The remaining votes were cast in third-party contests.
“Therefore, in 2018, 9.9 percent of eligible voters cast a vote for a Democratic candidate, 8.8 percent for a Republican candidate, and 80 percent cast no vote at all,” BPC reported.
Robert Boatright, Clark University political science department chair and one of the nation’s leading scholars on primaries, said via email that high-profile nominating contests can boost turnout, such as in 2018 when voters had strong feelings about Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Basically, primary turnout has been going steadily down since the 1960s, with a sharp upward turn in 2018 prompted by that year’s anti-Trump backlash,” he said. “If I were to guess, I’d say that it  will look more like 2014, when it was below 20 percent, than like 2018.”
Boatright said that primary voters aren’t necessarily more extreme than general election voters, which runs counter to the conventional wisdom that primaries mostly lure fervent partisans.
“There’s little solid evidence that primary voters are more ideologically extreme than general election voters,” he said, “and while you’re correct that crowded primary fields can advantage candidates who are not the strongest possible nominees or who are ideologically extreme, that’s a problem with primary elections as an institution, not with the voters.”
Keisling—who, as Oregon’s secretary of state, oversaw the nation’s first state to shift to using mailed-out ballots, which boosted turnout, and more recently is the board chair of the National Vote at Home Institute, which helped many states shift to using mailed-out ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020—noted that primary voters tend to be middle-aged and older.
That trend was seen in Texas’ primary, according to the political data firm L2. That pattern is partly due to the fact that older voters are less likely to move and more likely to have current voter registrations than younger people. But it also means that candidates can give less attention to issues of concern to younger voters, such as student loans or climate change, Keisling said.
Boatright’s view of low turnout was more measured than Keisling’s—and he explained why.
“It sounds to me from the tenor of his [Keisling’s] comments like his concern has to do with [U.S.] House primaries, and in particular with multi-candidate House primaries in places where the primary is more important than the general election,” Boatright said.
It was hard to estimate turnout in primaries, he continued, because their rules vary—such as allowing only party members (or all voters) to participate, as well as their scheduling and mix of contests. However, higher-profile or higher-ranking contests tend to boost turnout.
“Primary turnout also tends to be driven by statewide or federal elections,” Boatright said. “That is, in presidential election years, in states with concurrent presidential and state primaries, turnout tends to be much higher, particularly when the primary falls earlier in the year when the presidential nominee is still unclear. That doesn’t mean voters know anything about the [more localized] candidates further down the ballot.”
Looking past May and June’s primaries, Boatright wonders if different forms of voting—not winner-take-all contests—might elevate less-ideological candidates with wider appeal. But with the exception of Alaska’s new system debuting in August, where the top four finishers move onto November’s ballot, most of 2022’s primaries will not be different from past years.
“All of which is to say, ‘yes, voter turnout in congressional primaries can often be pretty low,’ but drawing lessons from it is hard,” he said. “We’d all probably be better off with some sort of ranked-choice system like what Alaska is using this year (although we don’t know for sure that those systems work better), but that is another issue.”
Meanwhile, as May and June’s primaries loom, Keisling said the problem with turnout in most states has nothing to do with long lines at the polls or partisan voter suppression.
“The problem is that people do not understand why it matters,” he said. “And there are powerful interests that want to keep people in the dark about it. But the biggest mystery of all is the press. They should have a keen interest in shining a light into these dark, low-turnout corners of the American political scene.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.