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Will Voter Participation Be Up Today? Maybe. Maybe Not.

Pile of Vote Badges - US Elections Concept Image
Getty Images/iStockphoto
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Pile of Vote Badges - US Elections Concept Image

With one highly contested Congressional race, competitive legislative races across the state and a highly divisive national political climate, today’s midterm elections could rouse more Kentucky voters into casting ballots.

But historical trends and forecasts of severe weather across the state have some worried that just the opposite could happen.

University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said years of polarizing rhetoric from politicians has depressed voter turnout as moderate citizens decided to not participate in the past.

But now Voss said polarization has trickled down, activating voters as more and more citizens identify as either extremely liberal or extremely conservative.

“A lot of people are going to vote basically against Donald Trump even though he’s not on the ticket, or to vote against the Democrats regaining power,” Voss said.

“That’s going to affect all these races even fairly low-level races that have nothing to do with the stakes in D.C."

All 100 of the seats in the Kentucky House of Representatives, half of the state Senate, all of Kentucky’s seats in the U.S. House and a variety of local elections are on ballots across the state this year.

With polls closing at 6 p.m. EST, Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district race will likely be one of the first to wrap up on election night and national political observers are looking to the contest as a bellwether on whether Republicans will be able to hold on to control of the U.S. House.

Based on absentee voting patterns, Kentucky Secretary of State Grimes predicted last week that 46 percent of the Kentucky’s registered voters will cast ballots — comparable to recent midterm participation rates.

"It's not OK, though, for more than half of our voters not to participate, and there's still time to prove my prediction wrong. I'm calling on all Kentucky voters to make a plan to vote next Tuesday,” Grimes said in a statement.

During the 2014 midterms — when Grimes challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell — 45.9 percent of registered Kentuckians cast ballots. In 2010 — the midterm after President Barack Obama was first elected — 49.1 percent voted.

Voter participation has been higher in presidential elections. Kentucky had 59.1 percent voter participation in 2016 and 59.7 percent in 2012.

And participation drops off significantly during Kentucky’s gubernatorial election years. When Republican Gov. Matt Bevin defeated Democrat Jack Conway in 2015, only 30.6 percent of registered Kentuckians voted.

But Voss said that discontent with the current political climate might send more people to the polls.

“Sometimes heavy political involvement means people aren’t content anymore, aren’t willing to sit back and let other do the voting, and they want to get in there and stir things up,” Voss said.

But at the same time, voter apathy extends far beyond recent political trends all the way to popular distrust generated in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

“The country has never really recovered from that lack of engagement with the political system and lack of trust,” Voss said.

Polls are open across the state from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.