Analysis: Tennessee’s low turnout primaries
(Photo: Getty Images)
Tennessee has historically been a low voter turnout state and the Aug. 4 primary elections proved no different. Only 17% of registered voters cast a ballot in the state and federal primary elections and the county-level general elections. Even for Tennessee, such a low level of turnout for a midterm primary is unusual.
However, the turnout decline from the last midterm primary was not equal across the state. Some places, like Shelby County, saw a dip of less than 20% while a few counties in Upper East Tennessee had a decline closer to 80%.
Some trends appear. Turnout declined the most in Upper East Tennessee. Many parts of rural West Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland Plateau steeply declined as well. Part is likely due to a lack of competitive statewide primaries that interest voters enough to encourage turnout. Gov. Bill Lee faced no opposition in the Republican primary and the only place where the Democratic gubernatorial primary appeared to spur turnout was in Shelby County since two of the three candidates were from Memphis.
The competitive Republican primary for the 5th Congressional district may have helped turnout in rural and suburban counties including Marshall and Maury. But the race for the 5th apparently created no such boost in the Davidson County portion of the district, in which turnout declined higher than the statewide average.
By comparing the voter turnout to past August primaries, a few trends can be seen. For one, voter turnout in midterm primaries has declined significantly over the past 20 years. Outside of 2018, an election year with competitive gubernatorial primaries in both parties, voter turnout for every midterm primary has been lower than the one before it.
The second trend is that primaries in presidential election years typically see far lower voter turnout than midterm primaries because of the lack of statewide and local elections that would otherwise encourage voter turnout. All county-level general elections are held alongside the midterm primaries and tend to bring more voters to the polls. Presidential primaries that could boost turnout are held separately from the August primaries so that the choice of Tennessee voters has some sway on the presidential primary race.
This year’s midterm primary was the first in the 21st century to have fewer than 1 million votes cast, even though the state has added more than 1 million voters to its rolls since 2002. The low turnout rate of 17% is more in line with the expected turnout for a primary during a presidential election year. For the first time, fewer votes were cast in the midterm primary than in the presidential election year primary that preceded it. It bears mentioning that the 2020 August primaries featured two competitive senate primaries and an unusually engaging national political environment.
Tennessee’s struggles with voter turnout are not unique. While 2020 and 2018 did see higher than normal turnout rates nationwide, such voter turnout was spurred by an incredibly controversial and divisive presidential administration. Perhaps the results for the 2022 August primaries is merely an aberration, but it is more likely that voter enthusiasm is returning to its previous levels.