Primary Election turnout is anyone’s guess

One of the keys to elections is turnout; just how many voters are motivated to cast their ballot for their favorite candidate or candidates.

Predicting turnout is tricky because of a variety of factors—level of interest in races, the weather on Election Day, candidates’ efforts to get out the vote.

Often, historical trends have provided some guidance. For example, the turnout in a presidential election year is typically greater than an off-year election.

But for this Primary Election?  Who knows?

The pandemic significantly changed this election cycle. For weeks, candidates pulled back their campaigns.  For most candidates, it just did not feel right during the shutdown to ask people to also think about politics.

Which brings us to the next unknown. With a virus health threat, the economic shutdown, and massive layoffs, people have not had much emotional energy to consider who to vote for.

Postponing the Primary Election for a month has helped.  The flattening of the virus curve and the reopening of the economy have allowed politics to come back into the news cycle.

The no-excuse absentee voting is a huge curve ball for this election.  As of Tuesday, county clerks had sent out nearly 250,000 absentee ballots and received 144,000 completed ballots.  If roughly the same number of individuals vote in this election as did in the 2016 Primary, the number of absentee ballot votes already represents 30 percent of the vote.

Who are all these absentee voters? Are they voters who were motivated by the ground game or media ads of a particular candidate?  Maybe some non-traditional voters who have been drawn into the process by the convenience of absentee voting?  If so, that could boost turnout.

Or are they mostly people who always vote and are just taking advantage of no-excuse absentee? If that is the case, turnout may end up being at or even below what it was in 2016—40 percent.

The 40 percent turnout in 2016 was high for West Virginia.  The Primary Election in the 2012 presidential election year only brought out 27 percent of voters.

Four years ago, Primary Election turnout here was boosted by the presidential race.  Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had secured their party’s nomination in early May, although each had emerged as a clear front runner.

Trump campaigned in the Mountain State and drew 157,000 votes among Republicans and Independents, while Bernie Sanders supporters turned out en masse to give him nearly 125,000 votes to Clinton’s 87,000.

Trump and Joe Biden have the nominations locked up. Their supporters may still want to make sure they vote for their nominee, but it is not as though the outcome of the presidential nomination process is in question.

So, what will the turnout be when all the votes are counted?

Notably, that brings up another unknown about this election.  Clerks must count tens of thousands of absentee ballots, which could delay the results.  Additionally, changes in the election may produce more challenged ballots than usual, which must be reviewed by county commissions sitting as boards of canvassers.

All these factors add up to an election like no other in West Virginia.


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