Today is primary election day in North Carolina. Across our state, voters will make dozens of important decisions about the future of our democracy.
In many places, Democrats and Republicans will select the two finalists in a slew of key contests — from the U.S. Senate to the state legislature to the state courts. In many others, where one party or the other dominates, today’s vote will effectively decide the outcome of the election.
Especially in the midst of such a tumultuous historical period, it is a day of considerable significance.
Unfortunately, here’s another fact about this year’s primary (and primaries in general): the overwhelming majority of North Carolina residents will be sidelined. Based on past performance, it’s almost certain that four out of five voters — and possibly even six out of seven — won’t participate.
North Carolina has held eight primary elections in non-presidential years since 1990, and the average turnout has been just under 15.6%. The high water mark was 21.21% in 2002 when the primary was postponed until September. The low point was 11.92% in 2006.
Turnout in the presidential year primaries is better, but still shockingly low. It has averaged just over 31% since 1988.
And while reports indicate there may be an increase in turnout in 2022, it remains a remarkable and deeply problematic situation.
Consider the story of Congressman Ted Budd.
In 2016 Budd, then an unknown political newcomer, won a special Republican congressional primary that took place in June (the election was delayed due to redistricting battles). There were 17 candidates in the race and Budd emerged victorious with 6,340 votes, or 20% of the approximately 30,000 votes cast. The overall statewide turnout was a miniscule 7.73%
Because the district he was running in was designed to be a safe GOP seat, Budd’s victory effectively guaranteed he would win in November, which he did with 56% of the vote. Since then, Budd has won two easy re-elections – a fact that he became the overwhelming favorite to win today’s Republican primary for the US Senate in an election in which he declined to participate. debates with his GOP colleague. competitors.
And Budd is far from the only North Carolina politician to benefit from such a scenario. Our state’s political history is dotted with prominent politicians from both major parties whose initial rise came in a low turnout primary. Many elections for state legislative seats that represent hundreds of thousands of voters will be decided today in elections that include only a few thousand ballots.
The point here is not to denigrate Budd or other politicians who seize the day and take advantage of the circumstances presented to them; the point is to highlight the truck-sized flaw in a system that allows so few voters to enjoy such outsized power.
Simply put, it is tragic that one of the largest states in the “largest democracy in the world” allows such a tiny minority of its citizens to make such momentous decisions.
Whatever the source of massive voter disengagement – a) archaic rules rigged to make it harder to vote, b) understandable disillusionment and/or embarrassing laziness and ignorance among voters, or c) all of the above – it is an embarrassing situation.
Part of the solution lies in something that Americans have never done a very good job of in this area: trying. The nation only embraced universal adult suffrage less than 60 years ago and even today erecting barriers to voting – especially for people of color and those on low incomes is something of a past. -national political time.
With just a little effort — through tools like automatic voter registration, widespread mail-in ballot distribution, election holidays, pre-registration for high school students, and scheduling primaries closer to November — l state could easily increase participation considerably.
As authors EJ Dionne, Jr. and Miles Rapoport convincingly document and explain, however, in their recently published book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting”, there is another tactic that allows many other nations to do a much better job – at least in general elections: compulsory voter participation.
In Australia, where voting has been treated as a civic duty for more than a century – like paying taxes or serving on a jury – rather than an option left to the whim of voter interest or distraction, the turnout in the 2019 general election was 91.9%. Belgium has seen similar figures.
Dionne and Rapoport readily acknowledge that such a system would be controversial in the United States. While almost certainly constitutional, mandatory voter turnout would be — even with a “none of the above” box to check ballots and a small, easily voidable parking ticket. – like fines for non-participation – go against the “don’t tread on me” cussedness of many Americans.
On the other hand, they note, it would also go a long way to ending the debate about voter turnout and voter suppression and, perhaps even better, help shift the ethics of our elections from an in which the guiding objective of so many campaigns is to get their own voters to vote, while discouraging those of their opponents. This is an idea that deserves at least serious discussion. Click here to listen to Dionne explain the book in a recent public radio interview.
The bottom line: The 2022 primary election in North Carolina will certainly lead to the de facto electing a number of important federal and state officials based on a turnout closer to what one would expect in a small town city council election.
It’s hard to believe that’s the best we can do.