Big Voter Turnout

Montana voters, at least on June 5, were the best model of political engagement in the country

By Myers Reece

In the 2012 Republican primary, Gerald “Jay” Scott came in second to Gary Krueger in the Flathead County Commission race by 30 votes out of 13,675 total votes cast, a margin that dwindled to 23 votes after a recount. Not even two-tenths of a percentage point separated Scott and Krueger.

In conservative Flathead County, where voter demographics have made the Republican primary the de facto general election in recent years, that’s about as close as you can get to the commissioner’s chair without sitting in it.

Six years later, in last week’s primary, Scott again came in second, finishing a mere 161 votes behind winner Randy Brodehl out of 17,612 total votes. Once again, the margin was less than a full percentage point. At least he can say this time he beat Krueger, who finished third, just ahead of the final candidate, Ronalee Skees.

Undoubtedly, Scott’s second near miss doesn’t feel good. If it’s any consolation, however, he and the other candidates can walk away feeling confident that voters cared about the election and made their voices heard, with a countywide voter turnout of 41.3 percent of registered voters.

It’s hard to ask for a better turnout in a midterm primary without presidential candidates on the ballot. It mirrored the statewide voter turnout of 41.4 percent, Montana’s highest midterm primary turnout since 1994, which was also the last time Flathead County cracked 40 percent in a midterm year.

The enthusiasm crossed party lines. As expected, more votes were cast for Republicans, but the Washington Post said the state’s 110,848 votes in the Democratic U.S. House race was “easily the highest midterm turnout for a Democratic primary in this century.”

The turnouts in the seven other states with primaries on June 5 were substantially lower, including New Mexico (27.6 percent of registered voters), Alabama (26.6), South Dakota (26.6) and Iowa (13.4). California’s turnout was 26.4 percent as of June 11, although the state was still processing ballots.

Mississippi’s turnout wasn’t readily available, but media reports suggested it was very low, perhaps a record low. New Jersey’s final tally was also unclear, but about 640,000 people voted in the biggest race, the U.S. Senate primary, contested in both parties. Considering there are roughly 5.8 million registered voters in New Jersey, we can conclude that turnout wasn’t much higher than 11 or 12 percent.

Flathead County’s most recent primary turnout in 2016 was also high at 38 percent, although that was a presidential election year, when turnout is typically expected to be stronger. The last five midterm primary turnouts in the county were 29 percent in 2014, 28 in 2010, 35 in 2006, 26 in 2002 and 20 in 1998.

Of course, numerous factors play into voter turnout, including the types of races and whether they’re contested tightly or at all; how voters perceive the significance of offices up for grabs and whether certain candidates generate outsized interest; the amount of money spent on ads and campaigning; the state of the economy or whether a certain issue of the day seizes the collective imagination; overall zeal or apathy of voters on any given year; voter laws and systems; demographics; and so on.

Pinpointing the precise reasons for this year’s local enthusiasm is an inexact endeavor. In Flathead County, part of it could have been a hotly contested and important county commission race with four notable Republican names on the ballot. Whatever the reason, Flathead and Montana voters, at least on June 5, were the best model of political engagement in the country.