Primary Turnout May Prolong Downtrend

This election year may go down in the record books alongside 1998 when states posted an average voter turnout in the primaries of only 17 percent, the worst in U.S. history.

Blame it on erosion of trust in political leaders, a decline in civic education and political discourse, busy lives, or whatever you want. Pick almost any reason, and chances are it bears some of the blame for declining interest in the nation's political process, says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

The committee plans to release a report on voter turnout for the 2002 primaries in the next two weeks. It's expected to show slight gains in voter numbers in many states, especially those where tight races and economic issues were prevalent. But overall, the numbers nationwide are expected to be on par with the 1998 elections. In a few states, such as Minnesota and Rhode Island, they will be lower.

"Turnout at this time is running at about the same level as 1998," said Gans, adding that the final tallies will be "a fraction of a percentage higher...or lower" than that year.

Gans said state primaries closer to the Nov. 5 general election tended to have higher turnouts than primaries in the spring or mid-summer. For example, in most of the 11 states holding primaries on Sept. 10, the turnouts on average were better. Some of the more closely contested races - like the Florida battle between Bill McBride and Janet Reno for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination - probably played a role in getting voters to the polls.

"That drove turnout up, but it drove turnout up in such small numbers that we are still facing a long-term crisis of the decline in the civic religion," Gans said, pointing out that voter participation has steadily declined since the 1960s when nearly 60 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

Florida hasn't had a 60 percent turnout since the 1960 presidential election. In 1998 when Jeb Bush was elected governor, the state's primary turnout mirrored the national average precisely at 17 percent. But this year's Sept. 10 primary produced a turnout of 28.7 percent, which made state election officials downright giddy.

"This is great," said one records-keeper for the Florida elections division. "I don't know what it means for the general election (on Nov. 5), but it shows that people are interested in the governor's race this year."

But in Minnesota's Sept. 10 primary, there seemed to be a lack of interest in the campaign to replace Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura, who opted not to run for re-election. This year's turnout was only 18.5 percent, compared to the 1998 primary turnout of 19.6 percent.