Eric Davis: Very low voter turnout possible in 2014
The November 2014 General Election in Vermont could turn out to be the election with the lowest turnout in several decades.
The Vermont Secretary of State’s Web site provides data on registered voters and turnout for all elections since 1974. The average turnout in Vermont for the 10 presidential elections from 1976 through 2012 was 70 percent of the registered voters. Vermont has consistently had one of the highest turnout rates in the nation in presidential elections. In part, this is because of the strongly civic-minded culture of the state.
High turnout is also due to some laws changing Vermont’s voting processes that have been enacted in recent years. The registration deadline is now not until the week before the election. Any voter may cast an early or absentee ballot. In 2012, 25 percent of all ballots were early or absentee votes.
As is the case nationally, turnout in Vermont in off-year elections is considerably below the level of presidential years. The average turnout in the 10 off-year Vermont elections from 1974 through 2010 was 56 percent of the registered voters. This number is consistent with national trends, where off-year turnout generally runs about 15 points below that in presidential years.
However, there is one exception to this general trend: the off-year election of 1978, when turnout in Vermont was only 45 percent, the lowest in 40 years. With the exception of 1978, the turnout in every other off-year election since 1974 ranged between 54 and 62 percent.
There are several parallels between 1978 and 2014, which could mean next year will be a low-turnout election as well. Once every six years, neither of Vermont’s two U.S. Senate seats is up for election. Once every 12 years, the election without a Senate race coincides with a non-presidential year.
Just as presidential election years have higher turnouts than off-years, elections in which a U.S. Senate seat is on the ballot have higher turnouts. In Vermont, U.S. Senate candidates, especially incumbents, spend more money than any other state-based candidates. Additionally, the two current senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, have what are probably the strongest and deepest political organizations in the state. These organizations work hard to bring their supporters to the polls in years in which Leahy’s and Sanders’ names are on the ballot.
The two most recent years in which there was no presidential election and no U.S. Senate election in Vermont were 2002 and 1990. However, turnout did not markedly decline in those years from the typical off-year level. In both of those years, there were competitive open-seat gubernatorial elections.
In 2002, the governorship was open for the first time in 12 years. Republican Jim Douglas ended up finishing first in a very close three-way race against Democrat Doug Racine and Independent Con Hogan. In 1990, former Republican governor Dick Snelling attempted a comeback after six years out of office. Snelling won a fifth non-consecutive term, by a six-point margin over Democrat Peter Welch.
Peter Shumlin is an all-but-certain candidate for re-election to a third term in 2014. With no presidential or U.S. Senate election in Vermont next year, there will be the same combination of races as in 1978, when Snelling was running for re-election to his second term as governor, but there were no other high-profile contests on the ballot. While the turnout next year may not be quite as low as the 45 percent in 1978, it may end up hovering right around the 50 percent mark, very low in the context of Vermont’s recent political history.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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