Last Tuesday we had a primary election in Alaska that demonstrated why it is important to get out and vote in EVERY election. On August 16, 2016, only 15.4% of Alaska’s 515,714 registered voters went to the polls. The election resulted in seven incumbents being ousted out of the Legislature. I leave it to others to debate whether this was a good or bad thing. What I’d like to talk about today is just how close some of the elections were.
- In House District 38, Representative Bob Herron lost his seat by 260 votes in a race with substantially better turnout (21.7%) than the state average (15.4%).
- In Senate District D, Representative Lynn Gattis lost her race for Senate by 148 votes in a race with 12.2% turnout.
- In House District 9, Representative Jim Colver lost his seat by 95 votes in a race with 17.1% turnout.
- In House District 40, Representative Ben Nageak lost his seat by just FIVE votes (765-760) in a race with 16.8% turnout.
In each of these races, the winning primary challenger will be the new legislator because the other party did not have a primary in that district. The primary election was the general election in these cases and around 80% of voters missed their opportunity to weigh in. A relative handful of voters in any of these races might have changed the outcome.
Extremely light turnout and lack of party competition at the primary level are not unique to Alaska and these factors are having federal effects. As David Wasserman of Five Thirty Eight puts it:
Primaries have become the new general elections — The Cook Political Report currently rates just 37 of 435 House seats as competitive this fall, less than 9 percent of the House. As a result, primary elections have become tantamount to general elections in the vast majority of seats. Because primaries are held on many different dates, they tend to generate less national attention and attract disproportionate shares of hardcore, ideological party activists to the polls.
In 2014, only 14.6 percent of eligible voters participated in congressional primaries — a record low, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. That means a tiny fraction of voters who are the most hardened partisans are essentially electing more than 90 percent of members of Congress. And these low-turnout primaries are often easy prey for ideological interest groups who demand purity.
In Alaska’s most recent election, news media has noted that both major political parties targeted a few of their own incumbents this time around, with mixed results.
This might all sound depressing to you. It did sound depressing to me at first. But we don’t have to accept things as they are. We can make the primary electorate bigger. We can work to put more candidates on the ballot, either in a primary or for a different party. And here in Alaska, we can vote knowing that until we can persuade more of our friends and family to vote, our votes will have outsized influence.
Get off the sidelines this November. Vote. Then keep voting and take your registered friends to the polls in EVERY election. Don’t let another legislator or ballot issue get decided by a handful of votes.
Not sure how to register or vote? Check out this video:
2016 Primary Election Report (Alaska Division of Elections) – http://www.elections.alaska.gov/results/16PRIM/data/results.htm
Voter Registration by Party and Precinct (Alaska Division of Elections) – http://elections.alaska.gov/statistics/2016/AUG/VOTERS%20BY%20PARTY%20AND%20PRECINCT.htm
Seven incumbents out of Legislature after low-turnout primary by Lisa Demer and Zaz Hollander, Alaska Dispatch News, 8/17/2016 – http://www.adn.com/alaska-news/2016/08/17/seven-incumbents-out-of-the-legislature-after-low-turnout-primary/
The Political Process Isn’t Rigged — It Has Much Bigger Problems by David Wasserman, Five Thirty Eight – http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-political-process-isnt-rigged-it-has-much-bigger-problems/
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