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Even As Mail-In Voting Grows, Overall Primary Turnout Low, Especially Among Democrats

"I Voted" sticker
Vox EfX via Flickr

This week’s Florida primary election attracted lower turnout than the midterm primary did in 2010. We took a look at some factors keeping people away from the polls, what some counties did to buck the trend and why Democrats might need to worry heading into November.

The primary turnout numbers were pretty dismal. But before we get to that, first, let’s hear from some voters about why they showed up on Election Day.

Tallahassee resident Tim Fletcher said, “If people don’t exercise it, eventually it’s going to disappear. And eventually they’re going to want it back.”

He had driven to a church near his house, he said, just to vote for Gov. Rick Scott in his primary against two Republican challengers.

“Just making sure that he knows that he’s got people out there supporting him, basically,” Fletcher said.

Tori Green says she came to the same polling place mostly because of city-level elections. Her motivations?

“The crime rate and education,” she said. “Those are my main two.”

And across town on the Florida A&M University campus, student Meridith Tucker voted as a registered Democrat.

“I just felt like we need more change, and I didn’t feel like Rick Scott was the man that was doing that, so I just wanted to try and get him out of office and get someone else in,” Tucker said.

After votes were counted in all 67 counties, it turns out, those voters were part of a small minority statewide. Among registered Republicans and Democrats, just one-fifth voted. Factor in people unaffiliated with a political party, and the overall turnout dipped to just 17.5 percent.

“There wasn’t a lot of statewide attention, and frankly, the other factor is we have very few competitive down-ballot races,” University of Florida Political Science Professor Dan Smith says.

Smith says Florida has some of the least competitive districts in the country, meaning many congressional and state-level incumbents are already reelected with little or no opposition. He believes it’s because of how the Legislature has drawn district boundaries.

“We have very lopsided districts in terms of either packed with Republicans or packed with Democrats, and as a result, the rational candidate or potential candidate is not going to throw his or her hat into the ring,” Smith says.

He says the primary election returns were particularly bad news for Democrats. Ahead of time, he predicted lots of them would turn out to decide the race between Charlie Crist and Nan Rich. He says that contest was contentious compared with the “token opposition” Scott faced on the Republican ticket. But only 18 percent of Democrats cared to choose their gubernatorial nominee, Charlie Crist.

“The Democrats have quite a lot of hurdles to excite their partisans to come out this November,” he says.

But at the same time most Floridians chose not to participate,  the primary election marked the first time more voters cast absentee and early votes than they did on Election Day—the vast majority of them by mail. Smith says it’s a positive trend because counties that aggressively promoted absentee voting saw overall turnout as high as a quarter of registered voters.

The state’s top election’s officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, says high mail-in ballot usage could be here to stay.  

“It very well could be. It’s a trend that we’ve seen actually since ’08, more people have been using absentee ballots. So, it could continue,” he says.

And speaking of the future of Florida’s elections, Detzner kicked off his primary night recap by reading his fortune cookie from dinner.

“It said, ‘Remember, three months from this date, good things are in store for you,’ So I’m feeling pretty good about the November election,” Detzner joked.

We’ll see how many registered voters feel the same way.