Voters lack zest for primaries

From the barrage of campaign ads TV viewers have been subjected to in recent weeks, you'd think Georgians were following the blow-by-blow of the statewide primary races intently.

But only 22 percent of registered voters are expected to care enough about who Republicans and Democrats nominate for the various offices to show up at the polls on Tuesday, according to estimates from the secretary of state's office.

That's a far cry from the 77 percent voter turnout in Georgia two years ago for the November presidential balloting.

But that was a general election. Generally, primaries have become ho-hum, low-turnout affairs in recent decades, not just in Georgia but across the country.

In fact, primary turnouts today are averaging an astounding 60 percent below what they were 40 years ago, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington.

He said the major factor in the declining interest in primaries is the growing number of independent voters.

"Clearly, there is a much smaller percentage of people who identify with a major party,'' he said.

Gans said the trend is particularly evident in Southern states like Georgia, where one-party rule once made primaries more important than general elections.

"The Democratic primary used to decide everything,'' he said.

Elections officials have tried to pump up turnout through various means, including allowing people to vote through the mail by absentee ballot without having to give a reason and through early voting, which first came to Georgia two years ago.

The concept was hugely popular in the presidential election that year, when voters stood in long lines in some counties during the week before Election Day to cast their ballot ahead of time.

"In some places, the lines for advance voting were longer than on Election Day,'' said Kara Sinkule, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office.

In all, more than 300,000 Georgians participated in early voting before the November 2004 election.

But through Thursday, only about 47,000 had taken advantage of early voting this primary season, with one day remaining, according to numbers released on Friday.

Sinkule said it appears that early voting motivates people when they're already interested in an election but doesn't necessarily create interest.

"For a hotly contested, high-turnout election, voters now have more opportunity to vote,'' she said. "But for a low-turnout election like this, it's difficult to gauge.''

Primary turnouts in Georgia in years featuring gubernatorial elections have hovered in the twenties of late.

The lone exception was in 2002, when turnout reached 30 percent. However, the primaries that year were held in August, after school began, a one-time change made by the General Assembly to give elections officials time to adjust district and precinct lines to new congressional and legislative redistricting maps.

Typically, Georgia's primaries take place during summer vacation season in July, another factor often cited for the low turnouts.

"You're competing with a lot of distractions with a July primary,'' Sinkule said.

But Gans said he has examined turnouts from states that hold primaries during the spring and fall - outside of vacation season - and during the summer and found no difference in turnout.

Gans said his research also shows that early voting does not tend to increase voter participation.

Again, he said, it comes down to whether voters feel it's worth their while to take part in selecting Republican or Democratic nominees to elective offices.

"You either believe in political parties or you don't,'' he said.

In a state like Georgia, where voters do not indicate their party affiliation when they register, one purpose primaries serve is to help point out trends in party strengths.

In that regard, the 2004 primaries were instructive.

Voters asked for more Republican than Democratic primary ballots, the first time that had happened in a year when both parties had contested races at the top of the ballot.

The GOP went on that fall to victory in the U.S. Senate race, giving the party both of Georgia's Senate seats, and to capture the state House, giving Republicans full control of the General Assembly.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.