Hot races drive second-highest primary voter turnout in Vermont history

Driven by vacant seats in Congress, statewide office and the Legislature, Vermonters turned out to vote Tuesday in strong numbers for an August primary. 

Preliminary counts from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office show that more than 130,000 voters participated this cycle. With more than 501,000 registered voters in the state, primary turnout reached roughly 26.5%, the state’s second highest turnout in a summer primary.

Tuesday’s figures are significantly lower than the 2020 August primary, when more than 157,000 voters shattered the state’s primary turnout record. In that election, held during the first summer of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 114,000 people voted by mail. 

The previous primary, in 2018, saw about 106,000 votes, or 22% of registered voters.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said Wednesday that this year’s primary turnout rate was relatively high because of the sheer number of competitive races on the ballot. In addition to Vermont’s first open congressional seat in 16 years, voters weighed in on contests for four open statewide offices and dozens of competitive legislative races.

Up-to-date figures on early and absentee ballots this cycle are not yet available, but Condos said on Wednesday that at least 50,000 people had voted using early or absentee ballots. That suggests mail-in primary voting remains more common than in pre-pandemic election years, but significantly diminished from 2020. 

Every primary cycle is different, making one-to-one comparisons difficult. Aside from the pandemic, 2020 also saw competitive Democratic primary races for an open lieutenant governor seat, as well as for governor. In 2018, only the Democratic gubernatorial primary was competitive.

The last cycle that saw nearly as much competition as this one was in 2016, when incumbents vacated seats for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. That year, 120,620 ballots were cast, a 25.8% turnout.

This year, the race for the state’s first open congressional seat since 2006 was expected to drive voters to the polls. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s impending retirement after nearly 50 years in office prompted U.S. Rep. Peter Welch to run for his seat, opening a slot in the U.S. House. The race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, was the most closely watched this cycle.

Vacancies in Vermont’s congressional delegation likely invigorated some voters who don’t normally turn out for primary elections. Vermont’s congressional delegation has leaned left for years, and the state’s Democratic primaries tend to forecast the winners of the November primaries. 

Some observers speculated ahead of the election that moderate Republicans might opt to vote in the Democratic primary as a result. (Vermont’s open primary allows voters to choose a ballot from any of the three major parties: Democratic, Republican or Progressive.) 

An exact party breakdown will not be available until official results are certified next week, but preliminary results show a strong skew towards Democratic ballots. According to data from the Secretary of State’s Office, more than 102,000 people pulled Democratic ballots, while the Republican primary had roughly 30,000 voters. 

By comparison, in 2020, roughly 109,000 voters pulled Democratic ballots, and nearly 59,000 voted Republican.

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Liora Engel-Smith

About Liora

Liora Engel-Smith covers health care for VTDigger. She previously covered rural health at NC Health News in North Carolina and the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. She also had been at the Muscatine Journal in rural Iowa. Engel-Smith has master's degrees in public health from Drexel University and journalism from Temple University. Before moving to journalism, she was a scientist who briefly worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

Email: [email protected]

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