Here's Who Votes In Primaries

Apr 8, 2014

“And so begins a critical period in American politics…that almost no one notices,” is the conclusion of a Brookings Institute report about primary elections in the United States.  A key finding is that in the past three midterms elections, turnout in congressional primaries has averaged 5.4%, 4.6% and 7.5% of the voting age population. 

When you factor in that some primaries are “closed,” meaning that only registered members of a party can participate in the selection of the candidates for the general election, turnout is even worse.

Here in North Carolina, we have a “semi-closed” primary system. This means that only registered voters with the party and (by decision of the party) ‘unaffiliated’ registered voters can participate; thus, registered Democrats can’t participate in the GOP primary election, and vice versa.

Over the past six mid-term elections, North Carolina generally had a higher primary voter turnout both in voting age population and among registered voters than the national averages.  But traditionally the state has seen those numbers in the teens in terms of percentages, with 2010 having only 14% of registered voters showing up in primary elections.

In looking at the 2010 primary election, a breakdown of voter turnout by the different party registrations shows that 17% of registered Republican voters cast ballots in the primary election, while 15% of registered Democrats cast ballots in their primary election. 

Not surprisingly, only 8% of registered unaffiliated voters decided to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primary contests, which points to the idea that it may be the partisans show up to determine the candidates who will be in the November general election.

Among those who cast ballots in the 2010 Democratic primaries, 89% were by registered Democrats; in the 2010 GOP primaries, 83% were by registered Republicans.  In both primaries, the rest were registered unaffiliated voters. 

In another key aspect of primary electorates, the age of voters casting ballots is decidedly older among partisans: only 11% of the ballots coming from registered Democrats were from voters under the age of 40, while 15% of the ballots coming from registered Republicans were under 40. 

Interestingly, 21% of registered unaffiliated voters casting ballots in May 2010’s primary election were under the age of 40. 

In comparison to 2010’s primary electorate, the 2012 general election saw that voters under the age of 40 made up nearly a third of the ballots cast. 

In the Democratic primary, 66% of the voters were white and 31% African-American. The electorate was 98 percent white in the GOP primary.

In comparison to the 2012 general election, white registered voters were 71% of the electorate, while black voters were 23% of the electorate.

So for the coming May election, we will most likely see electorates that are skewed to the partisan side, to voters over the age of 40, and (dependent on the party election) either a very white electorate or one that is very racially diverse.

And as was noted in the previous post, the May primary election is typically the definitive election for many contests, especially in the North Carolina General Assembly; and it will be a skewed electorate that determines the winners even before the voters in the general election get their say.