Secretary of State projects low voter turnout for upcoming Kentucky primary
While candidates are gearing up for next week’s primary election in Kentucky, some officials are not expecting many voters to cast ballots.
Secretary of State Michael Adams said Kentucky elections without a federal office on the ballot historically draw fewer voters.
Adams expects the trend to continue this year, projecting earlier this week on KET that this year’s turnout would be around 10%. If that projection holds, it could be one of the lowest voter participation rates in the past decade.
“People care a lot about who the president is. They come out of the woodwork to vote for president. That's always our biggest turnout election. They also come out to vote in local races, they care about their local mayor, or judge executive or whatever,” Adams said. “The governor, the secretary of state, our elections are kind of in the middle. They're very important offices that probably have more impact on voters’ daily lives than who the president is. And yet, we have the lowest turnout in that part of our cycle for the statewide constitutional offices.”
In 2022, 20.4% of registered voters statewide cast ballots in the primary election – which included elections for U.S. senator and U.S. representatives. In 2019, the last primary for governor and other statewide executive offices, around 19.4% of voters submitted ballots. Other statewide executive office primary elections have seen similar voter turnouts – the 2015 primary garnered a 12.5% showing and the 2011 primary brought out just 10.4% of the state’s registered voters.
Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky who researchers voting trends and behaviors. He said there are multiple factors that could drive low voter turnout in Kentucky’s 2023 primary election.
“Off-year elections usually get low turnout. That's the downside to detaching your elections from when the big presidential contest is taking place,” Voss said. “If you have a ballot that only has low level races, you expect turnout to be low.”
In Kentucky, Voss said there is more variation in voter turnout from election to election than he is accustomed to seeing. He attributed part of the variation to the state’s closed primary system, which only allows voters registered with a specific party to vote in the primary for that party’s candidate.
That means for Kentucky’s crowded field of Republican gubernatorial candidates, only those registered with the Republican party will be able to decide their party’s candidate for the four-year gubernatorial term.
“While the Republican gubernatorial primary is hotly contested and likely will draw people in, the Democrats don't have anything high up on their ticket that's likely to motivate voters,” Voss said.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is expected to defeat primary challengers Peppy Martin and Geoff Young.
As of April, those registered with political affiliations other than Republican or Democrat make up around 10% of the state’s registered voters. Because of the closed primary system, those voters are not able to cast votes in the primary election for any Republican or Democratic candidates. Voss said that gives this segment of voters little reason to show up.
Adams also thinks closed primaries are a factor in low voter turnout. He would like to see the state legislature consider opening up the primaries to allow Independent voters to vote in primaries.
“When you tell 10% of your voters, ‘you can't vote,’ you can't be surprised the turnout is going to be low,” the secretary of state said.
The primary election for statewide executive offices is on May 16. Early in-person no-excuse voting begins Thursday and runs through Saturday in every county.
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