The year of low turnout and the consequences of not voting

It’s an off-year, and turnout is expected to be low. There’s no Obama, Clinton, or Bush on the ballot. It’s the dead of summer, and no one turns out for primaries. Oh, it’s Hollywood. Yet another special election.

All of those have been justifications in a year that has seen low turnout -- sometimes exceptionally so -- from coast to coast, be it in Tuesday’s special Senate election in New Jersey, the May Los Angeles mayor’s race, or the June special Senate election in Massachusetts.

First Read Minute: Voter Fatigue 1:07

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s campaign team in New Jersey has every right to be fired up about what it was able to accomplish Tuesday. It hit all of its targets and got more voters to the polls in a non-presidential year Democratic Senate primary since 1982. Booker got more votes than any Democratic nominee in a non-presidential year since Bill Bradley in 1978, as he coasted to an expected victory as the Democratic Senate nominee.

Yet, just 20 percent of registered Democrats, 17 percent of voters in the combined primaries that were open to just Republicans and Democrats, and 9 percent of all voters in the state, actually went out to the polls.

And that is probably the most positive story of the year about turnout.

A myriad of issues have coalesced this year to create the circumstances for low turnout -- from voter fatigue following a long, drawn-out 2012 presidential election to a continued struggling economy, dissatisfaction with Washington at an all-time high, and congressional approval at all-time lows.

In Los Angeles, the mayor’s race saw its lowest turnout in at least 100 years. Eric Garcetti (D) won with the lowest raw vote total of any incoming L.A. mayor since Frank Shaw in 1933. Shaw was recalled in 1938 because of corruption, but even the winner in that race got 11,000 more votes than Garcetti.

In Massachusetts, in the race to replace John Kerry, who was appointed secretary of state, the election saw the lowest raw vote total in at least three decades. Its paltry 28 percent turnout is “probably the lowest” for a general election in the state’s history, according to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office, considering Massachusetts has only had two special Senate elections ever -- and they were both in the last three years, 2013 and 2010. In 2010, when Republican Scott Brown was elected, both he and Democratic challenger Martha Coakley each won more votes than Ed Markey (D), the 2013 winner.

(For more on the low turnout this year, see the chronology and data below.)

This is a trend, however, that is not unique to this year. Since the direct election of senators was allowed a century ago this year with the ratification of the 17th Amendment, Americans have increasingly ignored “smaller” elections like primaries, special elections, and municipal races.

“We had turnouts in these primaries that looked on par with general election turnouts,” Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, who studies turnout, noted of the early 20th Century following the ratification of the 17th Amendment.

But that passion for voting has faded, and has created a reality in American politics in which the vast majority of Americans are not participating in the political process outside of major races.

And that has consequences -- from impacting the level of vitriol in the national political debate to electing more ideologically rigid candidates, McDonald pointed out.

“Part of what’s going on in national politics, has to do with primaries,” McDonald said.

With more and more people detaching themselves from the system, primaries have become increasingly activist-driven, reducing the influence of moderates -- especially in closed primaries where only Democrats or Republicans can vote -- and allows for greater influence by moneyed outside groups.

That’s something that can be seen, for example, in North Carolina, where discount store mogul and conservative donor Art Pope has been able to wield outsize influence by spending millions on low-turnout legislative and judicial races.

In 2010, Republicans took over both chambers of the state legislature and then, in 2012, won the governorship, giving them control of all three for the first time since Reconstruction. And they have pushed through a conservative agenda on issues ranging from abortion to voting rights.

Democrats have recoiled, staging protests that have seen hundreds arrested since the beginning of the year. But the influence of a few – conservative or liberal -- would not be nearly so easy to achieve if more people voted in these races that often get little attention.

“Because people aren’t tuned in,” McDonald said, “they don’t see the importance of this until it bites them.”


Here’s a rundown of the elections this year, by dates and by the numbers:

May 7: SC-1 special: 143,635 of 455,702 registered voters showed up, or 32%, in the race that pitted ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, who stepped down from the governorship after a high-profile affair, against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. That percentage is far lower than general elections statewide, but it was actually higher than the average for past special elections. Special elections in the state generally don’t see higher than 20% turnout, according to the South Carolina State Election Commission.

The last U.S. House special election in the state was in 2002 in the second congressional district that saw Joe Wilson first elected following death of Rep. Floyd Spence. Just 13% turned out for the general election, which was similar to what it was in the primary of this heavily Republican district. 

Statewide general election turnout in South Carolina

2010: 52%

2008: 76%

2006: 45% 

Last congressional special election

2002: 12.8%

May 21:LA Mayor: Just 419,592 of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters turned out, or 23.3%. That was the lowest percentage to elect a mayor in at least 100 years.

Incoming mayor winning vote total

2013 – Eric Garcetti, 222,3000

1938 – Fletcher Bowron, 233,427

1933 – Frank Shaw, 187,368

Source: Los Angeles Times Data Desk

June 3: NJ GOV primary: Again low turnout marked these elections. Running unopposed, incumbent Gov. Chris Christie (R) wound up getting 205,666 votes, which was only about 2,000 fewer than Booker received in the contested special.

June 11: VA primaries: With no gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in Virginia, few Democrats showed up to elect their lieutenant governor and attorney general nominees in Virginia.

June 25:MA SEN special: Just 1,179,781 of the state’s 4,251,975 registered voters showed up in the special election to replace John Kerry in the Senate. Markey won just 645,429 votes. Brown got 1,168,178, and Coakley 1,060,861.

Massachusetts Senate race turnout since 1982

2013* special: 1,179,781

2012: 3,184,196

2010* special: 2,253,727

2008: 3,102,995

2006: 2,243,835

2002: 2,220,301

2000: 2,734,006

1996: 2,600,285

1994: 2,232,206

1990: 2,424,579

1988: 2,689,857

1984: 2,595,054

1982: 2,103,780

Source: Massachusetts Secretary of State Elections Division.

Aug. 13: NJ SEN: Just 480,000 of more than five million New Jersey registered voters turned out for the combined primaries, or 9 percent. It was a closed primary, so when looking just at Democrats, it was 19.6 percent (with 2 percent of precincts still to report).

NJ Senate primary turnout history:

2013: 481,847 (9%)

2013* (GOV primary): 420,932 (8%)

2012: 485,240 (9%)

2008: 569,225 (11%)

2006: 405,883 (8%)

2002: 497,024 (11%)

2000: 773,491 (17%)

1996: 546,528 (13%)

1994: 484,959 (13%)

1990: 467,346 (13%)

1988: 952,999 (26%)

1984: 1,013,219 (27%)

1982: 847,760 (23%)

1978: 716,509 (20%)

1976: 981,329 (28%)

1972: 881,059 (26%)

1970: 591,161 (19%)

1966: 566,453 (19%)

1964: 534,027 (18%)

1960: 709,322 (26%)

1958: 756,746 (28%)

1954: 696,307 (27%)

1952: 924,816 (39%)

1948: 630,615 (29%)

1946: 684,290 (34%)

1944: 453,862 (24%)

1942: 525,537 (24%)

1940: 913,538 (41%)

1938: 792,179 (38%)

1936: 897,887 (45%)

1934: 856,242 (46%)

1930: 776,114 (43%)

1928: 781,155 (54%)

Source: New Jersey Division of Elections

As non-presidential primaries go, not to mention specials, Booker won more votes than any recent Democrat and more Democrats showed up in decades.

Non-presidential year Democratic primary turnout raw vote

2013: 352,120 - Booker: 207,891

2006: 189,994 – Bob Menendez 159,604

2002: 181,468 – Bob Torricelli 181,468 unopposed

1994: 187,045 – Frank Lautenberg 151,416

1990: 213,741 – Bill Bradley 197,454

1982: 402,959 - Lautenberg 104,666

1978: 461,369 - Bradley 217,502

1970: 314,358 - Harrison Williams 190,692

1966: 316,653 - Warren Wilentz 197,428

1958: 376,924 – Harrison Williams 152,413

1954: 281,914 – Charles Howell 230,250

1946: 183,082 – Alfred Driscoll 281,715

1942: 194,644 – William Smathers 170,621

1938: 356,254 – William Ely 286,625

1934: 335,530 – A. Harry Moore N/A

1930: 148,517 – Alexander Simpson 118,494

Source: New Jersey Division of Elections.