Tuesday saw an election night like few we’ve seen before.
Most ballots were mailed, a measure put in place in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus among people close together at voting sites. As a consequence of that, final results won’t be announced until days after the two in-person voting centers closed.
Carroll County Elections Director Katherine Berry told us that, of the 123,717 Carroll countians registered to vote, 37,419 have submitted a ballot, for a turnout of 30.2%. That’s including 16,598 mailed ballots that have not yet been counted, and Berry expects more to arrive in the mail (anything postmarked by June 2 will be accepted). So that percentage could inch upward a bit in the coming days.
Berry said Carroll typically sees a voter turnout of 30% for a presidential primary. While it’s somewhat encouraging that local voters have participated in this strange election at about the same rate seen in more normal primaries, it’s deeply disappointing that the norm is so low.
Ballots that include presidential races tend to draw greater turnout. So if those occasions don’t even see turnout topping a third of registered voters — not residents, but registered voters — then that leads us to feel some cause for concern.
The previous primary election to feature a presidential race, in 2016, did see slightly higher figures. That year, 40.38% of 118,929 eligible voters registered as Republicans cast a ballot, whereas 47.45% of 32,528 registered Democrats voted. That was about as contentious and contested a primary season as they come. And it still didn’t hit 50% turnout.
We must do better.
At least this time, it’s no mystery why turnout was this low.
With the primary being held so late in this presidential campaign cycle, all major candidates have suspended their campaigns, essentially leaving former Vice President Joe Biden with the Democratic nomination. Supporters of his former competitors could be forgiven for feeling little incentive to vote for their preferred candidates anyway. And President Donald Trump does not have any serious challengers among Republicans.
If that’s not enough to dampen enthusiasm, how about a pandemic? With COVID-19 continuing to spread, and kill, around the country and state, the traditional ritual of lining up at the local school, senior center or other polling place to vote was de-emphasized this year.
Based on our coverage of the two voting centers that were open Tuesday, it was clear that voters appreciated the opportunity to still fulfill their democratic duties in person, even if that meant dropping off mailed ballots into a dropbox.
It seems to us that, understandably, the average Carroll County voter prefers to vote in person. The average voter would also be more enthusiastic about the whole process if there were competitive presidential primaries to weigh in on. But it’s so deeply important — you’ve heard this from us before, time and again — that we all participate in this democracy, voicing our preferences in races that affect local lives.
Even if it were just for, say, the school board contest, we wish turnout in this strange primary had seen less of a decline from four years ago. Here’s hoping the general election sees a substantial climb from this level.