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Vermont Primaries

09/08/08 5:55PM By Frank Bryan
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Tomorrow Vermonters will go to the polls to choose candidates from the various parties to square off in November's general election.
 
If history is any judge it will not be a pretty picture for our democracy.
 
The declining trend line in turnout in the primary from 1970 predicts only about 15% of Vermont's registered voters will bother to participate. 
 
It could be higher of course. In the last half dozen primaries it was above 15% twice and 15% or below three times. But in the last 19 primary elections two thirds of the registered voters stayed home in all but one. And in that primary, turnout barely reached 1/3rd.
 
This dismal record has occurred even though Vermonters have an "open" primary in that they may choose the party primacy in which they intend to vote secretly, after they have been checked off as a registered voter and are alone in the voting booth. 
 
The historical data also indicate that the turnout between the years 1920 and 1960 was roughly double what it was between 1962 and 2006.
 
The reason seems obvious. Prior to 1962 the Democrats didn't win statewide elections. Only Republicans did. From the election of 1920 through the election of 1960 only ONE Democrat was victorious in any general election. Thus the decision that mattered seemed to take place in September and not November. 
 
It might be reasonable to assume that when the general election is far more competitive as it is now (that is a member of either party might win the general election) turnout in the primaries of both parties ought to increase, since each has a chance to win the general election. On the other hand one might argue that with both parties able to win statewide elections, the pressure to refrain from internal conflict within the parties will inhibit the chances for competitive primaries and thus cause lower turnout.
 
Many variables could be added to the mix of this conundrum. Although the number of competitive elections in the primary has remained relatively constant since 1980 as turnout has declined, serious challenges for the major offices within the major parties is rare. Plus increases in the expense of elections may be at work.
 
Still if political parties are essential to representative democracies (and most political scientists including me think they are), if internal checks and balances are important to healthy political parties, and if ordinary voters ought to participate in these internal dynamics, then tomorrow's election will in all likelihood leave very much to be desired.



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