Politically Thinking: Gauging the August primary effect

Last week, Governor Douglas allowed a bill to move Vermont’s primary from the second Tuesday of September back to the fourth Tuesday of August to become law without his signature. This year’s primary elections will be held on August 24.

Vermont has never held an August primary, but August primaries are common in other states. This year, 13 states in addition to Vermont will have their primary elections in August. That number could increase if other states with September primaries move those elections back to August as a way of complying with new federal legislation that requires states to provide more time for absentee ballots to be distributed to military and overseas voters. September primaries do not give state election officials enough time to prepare and distribute general election ballots within the 45-day window required by federal law.

What sort of turnout will we see in this summer’s Vermont primary?

Primary turnout has been declining in recent years. There are currently about 450,000 registered voters in Vermont. The year 2000 was the last election year in which primary turnout exceeded 100,000. Since then, total primary turnout has ranged between 60,000 and 70,000 in years in which there were competitive primaries, and between 35,000 and 50,000 in years in which there were few primary contests. Even in a “high turnout” year, fewer than 20 percent of Vermont voters have cast a ballot in the primary election.

The five-way contest for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination should result in a higher Democratic primary turnout than in recent years. In 2006, when there was a competitive Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, almost 40,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary. This year’s competitive gubernatorial race should produce a turnout at least 50 percent higher than four years ago, or about 60,000 voters. If several of the gubernatorial candidates develop large-scale voter identification, mobilization, and turnout operations, the Democratic primary turnout could reach 70,000.

The candidate with the most votes wins the Vermont primary, regardless of his or her percentage of the vote. In previous primary elections with more than three candidates, in both Vermont and other states, the winner has generally received between 35 and 40 percent of the vote. With many strong candidates in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial field, there is not yet any reason to believe that one candidate will break out of the pack and receive more than 50 percent of the vote on August 24.

With only 25,000 to 30,000 votes likely sufficient to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary, candidates will put more emphasis on grass-roots campaigning and identifying and turning out core supporters than on broadcast advertising. Besides, the primary winner will want to conserve campaign funds for the general election against Brian Dubie.

The Republican primary will have a lower turnout than on the Democratic side. The highest-profile Republican primary race is the contest between Phil Scott, a state senator from Washington County, and Mark Snelling, son of the former governor, for the nomination for lieutenant governor. A turnout of 30,000 to 40,000 voters would be a reasonable expectation for the Republican primary.

With combined primary turnout estimated to run about 100,000, or just over 20 percent of the registered voters, candidates in both parties will work hard to get their core supporters to cast their ballots before August 24. Vermont election law allows any voter to submit an absentee ballot by mail, or at their town clerk's office, during the 30 days before an election.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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