Voter Choice in Primary vs. General Elections

For background comparison between Oregon, California and Washington, click here.

Current status of primary election turnout in Oregon 

Turnout in Oregon’s May primary elections is much lower than in November general elections. Since 2000, for example, Oregon primary turnout has ranged from 35.9% in 2014 to 58.3% in 2008. During this same period our state’s general election turnout ranged from 69.1% in 2002 to 86.5% in 2004. Turnout in presidential years is typically higher than in mid-term elections, but the disparity between primary and general election turnout is consistent.

One reason for this disparity in turnout is that primary election participation by voters affiliated with minor political parties or with no party is quite low. In May 2014, for example, voter turnout from those aligned with a minor political party ranged from 9.2 to 30% while turnout from non-affiliated Oregon voters was 20.3%. This should be no surprise since these voters are not eligible to participate in partisan primary elections so the ballots they get in the mail just list candidates for typically lower profile nonpartisan contests. Ballot measures are also  listed on these nonpartisan ballots though more measures, especially those likely to get more media attention, typically appear on Oregon’s general election ballot in November. 

Even among voters who are registered with a major party, however, primary participation is generally lower than general election turnout. In May 2014, for example, Oregon voter turnout in the Democratic partisan primary was 40.3% and turnout in the Republican partisan primary was 45%. 

This disparity between primary and general election turnout is seen across the country. However, Oregon primary turnout is consistently higher than in most other states. For example, Minnesota’s 2014 election primary turnout was 12.8% compared to Oregon’s 35.9% primary turnout last May. In contrast, Minnesota’s general election turnout is always one of the highest in the country and typically exceeds Oregon’s high general election voter participation.  This comparison demonstrates that increasing Oregon’s already high primary general election turnout could be a challenging goal for any reform.

Why might an open primary increase voter turnout?

Oregon’s current partisan primary elections are not open to 668,469 voters (as indicated in August registration statistics available in mid-September) who are either registered with minor political parties or are not affiliated with any party. As noted above, these voters participate in primary elections at a much lower rate than their Democratic and Republican counterparts who can vote on their respective partisan primary contests. Measure 90 advocates argue that primary election turnout would increase since all registered voters could vote on the single primary ballot on which all candidates are listed. 

Another factor in a possible increase in primary voter turnout under Measure 90 is that more May elections might be competitive. These races could then attract more attention and turnout might increase due to heightened visibility and voters thinking that their participation really matters. This rationale is based on the lack of competition in Oregon’s current partisan legislative primaries. An analysis done by Democracy Reform Oregon, a precursor of Common Cause Oregon, found that between 80 and 91% of partisan primaries were uncontested between 2002 and 2008. And even when a primary was contested, the race typically involved one candidate whose fundraising was 75% or higher than any opponent. When these “drowned out” races are added to uncontested elections the percentages of partisan primaries without any meaningful competition ranged from 88 to 95% between 2002 and 2008. Indeed, for many incumbents in safe legislative districts the May election is essentially “the election” because the minority party doesn’t bother fielding a primary candidate. In these situations, a non-affiliated or minor party candidate may appear on the general election ballot, but their chance of success is minimal. Common Cause Oregon sees no evidence that these dynamics have shifted in primaries between 2008 and today. 

Will turnout significantly increase in an open primary?

The numbers are there to support the position of Measure 90 advocates that turnout in an open primary could increase, but will it increase? Or more to the point, would primary turnout increase to or close to the levels seen in November? Since the current general election ballot is open to all voters, the turnout of Oregon non-affiliated voters or voters aligned with a minor political party in November is one source of information to assess this question. 

Primary election turnout of non-affiliated voters in May 2012 was 19.8% compared to overall primary turnout of 38.9%. The November 2012 non-affiliated voter turnout was a much higher 71.7%, presumably since the general election gets more attention and these voters can vote in all races on their ballots. Nevertheless, this group’s 71.7% turnout was 11 points lower than the overall general election turnout of 82.8%. In other words, even though more non-affiliated voters participated in the general election when there were no restrictions on their participation, they still did not vote at the rate of the electorate as a whole. 

Primary election turnout of minor party voters in May 2012 was 24.7% compared to overall primary turnout of 38.9%, a difference of 14.2 points. As noted above in regard to non-affiliated voters this isn’t a surprise since these voters can’t vote in partisan primaries. The November 2012 minor party voter turnout was 75.1%, but this was 7.7 points lower than the overall general election turnout of 82.8%. In other words, even though more voters registered with minor parties participated in the general election when there were no restrictions on their participation, they still did not vote at the rate of the electorate as a whole.

The comparisons in the previous paragraphs provide the grounds for thinking that turnout in an open primary may increase, but will turnout really increase to a significant extent? Possible turnout increases could become more significant, though, if voters who are not aligned with a major political party are more energized by the open primary primary system and new campaign strategies are developed to entice their involvement. 

We can look at the experiences in Washington and California to see what they tell us about voter turnout changes due to their open primary/top two general election systems. In both our neighboring states any presidential primary occurs earlier in the year, but comparing midterm to midterm and presidential to presidential turnout is essential for general elections but also prudent for primary elections since a heightened public awareness of politics in presidential years is typical even before autumn. But it’s also important to keep in mind several caveats about comparing voter turnout patterns across state lines, as the following paragraphs note. 

Washington and California primary turnout after top two reform?

Washington’s primary is in August which some feel dampens turnout because people are not paying attention to politics during the summer. Until 2008 the statewide Washington primary was in September, but the shift to August occurred to ensure obtaining timely results in close elections. Comparing primary turnout over time in Washington is complicated by the change to the top two system also occurring in 2008. In addition, prior to the current system Washington voters still had more primary choices. In 2004 and 2006 all Washington voters could participate in primary elections, though they had to pick a ballot with either Democratic or Republican candidates. Prior to that and since 1935, all Washington voters could vote on any primary candidate in blanket primaries.

This sets the stage for not expecting as significant a change in primary voter turnout in Washington as might be expected in a state changing to the top two system from a more closed primary system. This seems to be the case with mid-term primary election turnout in Washington that was 34.21% in September 2002 and 38.79% in September 2006 prior to the top two system, compared to turnout of 40.97% in August 2010 and 31.15% in August 2014 after adoption of the top two system. Presidential year primary election turnout in Washington was 40.80% in September 2000 and 45.14% in September 2004 prior to the new primary system’s adoption compared to turnout of 42.6% in August 2008 and 38.48% in August 2012, after the new system was implemented. It seems prudent wait for at least another election before trying to parse out whether turnout shifts in Washington are due to the top two system or the primary timing switch to August.  

California’s primary election has been in June since 2006. A change that began in 2014 is that measures put on the ballot through the citizen initiative signature gathering process will not be included on the June primary. Measures can still be put on the June ballot by the legislature, but the typically higher profile citizen initiatives will now only appear on the November general election ballot. For primaries in mid-term years, the pre-top two system turnout was 33.63% in 2006 and 33.31% in 2010 while under the post-top two system turnout was 25.17% in 2014. For primaries in presidential years, the pre-top two system turnout was 28.22% in 2008 compared to post-top two system turnout of 31.06% in 2012. Compared to national trends these primary turnout rates are high. One reason cited for relatively higher primary turnout in California is that June ballot measures increase voter interest. That this ballot measure timing change occurred in 2014 complicates determining if last June’s turnout decline in California is due to the change in the number and type of ballot measures or the open primary. 

In terms of non-affiliated voters, an interesting California finding is that these voters cast more votes under the open blanket primary system in 1998 and 2000 and the top two primary system in 2012 compared to their participation in the closed primaries held in the intervening election years. Given the relatively small numbers of non-affiliated voters in California this trend hasn’t affected overall primary turnout figures. This could change as familiarity with the voting options provided in the top two system grows and the campaign consultant community considers strategies to motivate these voters. 

Washington and California general turnout after top two reform?

It is also worth examining general election turnout rates in our neighboring states to see if their adoption of an open primary/top two general election system like Measure 90 produces candidates and contests that change the level of voter participation in November.

In Washington, pre-top two general election turnout in midterm elections was 65.7% in 2002 and 64.55% in 2006. After the top two system began in 2008, midterm general election turnout in 2010 increased to 71.24%. Pre-top two general election turnout in presidential years was 75.56% in 2000 and 82.19% in 2004. After top two went in place in 2008, presidential year general election turnout in 2008 increased to 84.61% but dipped to 81.25% in 2012. 

In California, the open primary/top two system went into effect in 2012 so the only pre and post reform general election turnout figures are for presidential years 2008 with 79.42% turnout and 2012 with 72.36% turnout. This dip occurred even though there were same-party general elections where two Democrats or two Republicans were the top two advancing to the November ballot. For example, this dynamic occurred in 27 “safe” seats that previously would have seen nominal opposition from the candidate whose party does not dominate the district. However, voters frequently skipped same-party contests even though they had voted for candidates for higher offices. 

In other words, the California opportunity in 2012 to select a more moderate Republican or Democrat facing a candidate from the same party on the general election ballot was not taken by all voters. Even though political parties are not monoliths and there can be significant variations between candidates of the same party, this drop in down-ballot voting indicated that not all voters made this distinction in same-party general elections. This could be due to confusion since same-party general election contests were new. Or it could be a voter information issue since those used to seeing different party labels to inform their voting may not have felt they could distinguish between two candidates from the same party.  

Under Measure 90, Oregon ballots would have a label for a candidate’s registration and labels for up three party endorsements. California ballots just list the candidate’s registration.  In addition, Oregon candidates can accept endorsements from more than one political party due to fusion voting. A minor party cross-endorsement could be particularly helpful to distinguish between two candidates registered with the same major party and this option is not available in California. 

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