Sleepy Turnout Expected for Vermont Primary Day

Published: 8/14/2018 9:52:47 AM
Modified: 8/14/2018 10:04:33 AM

Montpelier — Vermonters will head to the polls today to cast ballots in the 2018 primary elections, determining the future of the state’s federal races as well as this year’s major party state and local contests. But not many voters are expected to show up.

Primaries, particularly in off-years without presidential races, don’t tend to attract significant voter turnout in Vermont, political experts said.

And in years like this, when there are many established incumbents running — including the governor’s race, where Republican Phil Scott faces little threat of an election upset as he nears the end of his first two-year term — it can be even harder to energize voters.

“I don’t think it’s going to be anything on the scale of what we would expect if there were no incumbent or if it were a presidential year,” said Rich Clark, political science professor at Castleton University.

In the last off-year election in 2014, only 9 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, according to data from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.

The 2016 primary occurred during a presidential year, but its ballot didn’t include presidential candidates, who are selected on Town Meeting Day. That year turnout was also low: about 46,000, or 11.5 percent of registered voters.

One statistic that already sets this year’s primaries apart from 2014 is the number of voters who have requested early ballots.

As of Aug. 9, 13,590 voters had requested early ballots, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office.

That number is more than double what it was in 2014 at 6,034. In the 2016 primary, 20,038 residents had requested absentee ballots by the Thursday before the primary.

But most say that early ballots aren’t necessarily a good indicator of how many voters will actually head to the polls on primary day.

Jim Condos, Vermont’s secretary of state, said his office is in no position to make any predictions about what the state of turnout will be on Tuesday. “We have no idea what the numbers are going to look like,” he said.

Condos said there’s “certainly a lack of competition” in many races, but stressed this wasn’t the case across the board, pointing to highly contested state Senate races in Washington, Chittenden and Rutland counties.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, both incumbents, are expected to get through the Democratic primary rather easily and retain their seats in November. Sanders is an independent and being challenged in the Democratic primary by Folasade Adeluola, who just moved to the state in September.

Dan Freilich is now alone in taking on Welch following the abrupt withdrawal by Ben Mitchell during a radio debate on Thursday.

Scott is seen as a frontrunner in his primary despite opposition because of his support of gun legislation during the recent legislative session.

Scott’s challenger on the Republican side, Keith Stern, a grocer from Springfield and political novice, is given a slim chance of winning by most analysts.

On the Democratic side, the primary contest in the governor’s race is viewed as very competitive, with four candidates vying for the nomination.

However, none has held statewide public office, and a VPR-Vermont PBS poll from last month showed the majority of Vermonters don’t know who the candidates are, which is a sign Democratic turnout could be low, Clark said.

On the Democratic ticket, James Ehlers, Christine Hallquist, Ethan Sonneborn and Brenda Siegel are running.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, is also running as a write-in candidate.

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