Arkansas expects to see 20% of voters participate in primaries

The Arkansas Secretary of State’s office expects there will be 350,000 to 360,000 people casting a vote during this year’s primary elections.

Leslie Bellamy, director of elections for the office, projects 60% of the ballots for the primaries will be cast during the early voting period that began Monday.

“Lots of counties have went to vote centers so that may put the early voting numbers down a bit, but Arkansas is a very big early voting state,” Bellamy said in an interview.

Arkansas is one of 18 states to allow jurisdictions to use vote centers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vote centers permit ballots to be cast by voters at any vote center in their areas on Election Day, instead of only being allowed at designated precincts.

The last time the state conducted elections was in 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak. Bellamy says each county has its precautions regarding COVID-19 this year.

“I think there would still be some accommodations in some counties and still have the pandemic protective items like masks. We certainly want to be respectful if anyone wishes or continues to wear a mask,” Bellamy said. “Basically a lot of it has reverted back to how it was done before COVID.”

New district boundaries and legislation 

Bellamy says new district boundaries that were drawn as part of the redistricting process are being used, despite court challenges of the new maps. If the redrawn districts are ruled unconstitutional, she says the Secretary of State’s office will defer to the courts.

“Probably we would just follow the court’s direction, whatever they have in the ruling on how to start the process,” Bellamy said. “To my knowledge, it’s never been done this late before. We’d probably need a lot of the court’s insight on how to proceed.”

During this election, the state has implemented new voting restrictions passed last year by the legislature. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling and allowed the laws to take effect. Bellamy said the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t received an increase of calls or emails to the office about confusion related to the new laws.

Low voter turnout in primaries

Arkansas has about 1.7-million voters, so the 350,000 to 360,000 voters expected to vote in the primary represent about 20% of voters in the state.

Janine Parry, director of Arkansas Poll and a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said low voter turnout isn’t unique to Arkansas. During the 2020 presidential election, 24% of voters nationwide participated in the primary elections. Parry explained the nationalization of politics is part of the reason for the lack of participation in the primaries.

“The presidency is a single big prize of which the whole country is aware and it happens on (basically) a single day. These primaries (and runoffs) are doled out across 50 states in ways that most people find incomprehensible and/or dull,” Parry said in an email.

The lack of voter participation in the primaries should be a concern to the public, she added.

“Low voter turnout in state primaries means that just a fraction of a fraction of people are determining the outcomes of the elections that drive all subnational politics and policy. And that fraction is not representative of the typical American voter come general election time,” Parry said. “In each case, they will be the most strident partisans of either stripe: the Ds will be more liberal on average and the Rs more conservative. Candidates know those are the votes they need to get at primary time so those candidates appeal to the wings, the fringes, of American political thought.”

Early voting for the primaries will continue through May 24. The most contentious primary races in Arkansas are for lieutenant governor and the U.S Senate.

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