Virginia Primary Turnout Up - But Still Low Despite National Profile

Released June 10, 2009

For Immediate Release:
June 10, 2009


Paul Fidalgo, communications director
(301) 270-4616

Turnout in Tuesday's fiercely fought Democratic gubernatorial primary was only 6.3% of registered voters and about 5.5% of eligible voters. Despite big spending, media attention and the ability for voters of all political stripes to participate (due to Virginia's "semi-open" primary system), an overwhelming majority of active Democrats did not participate in their party's nomination for governor.

Tuesday's contest comes just one week after gubernatorial primaries in New Jersey which saw very low levels of participation as well. "Turnout in non-presidential primaries continues to disappoint, with the latest numbers from Virginia and New Jersey underscoring the problem," said FairVote executive director Rob Richie. "Yet under our current rules, primaries eliminate most potential voter choice and effectively determine the winners of most legislative elections."

Though Tuesday's turnout in Virginia was higher than expected, the bar is set very low. In 2005 3.98% of registered voters participated in the Republican gubernatorial primary and 2.62% voted in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, while the hard-fought 2006 Democratic senatorial primary drew only 3.45%. Though participation was more widely spread in state assembly races this year, the highest level of participation topped out at a mere 14.5%. When such a tiny portion of the Virginia electorate is choosing nominees for state offices, the results may not reflect the will of the far more numerous voters going to the polls in November. This is of particular concern when one party dominates and a nominee faces no serious opposition in a general election, as is usually the case for legislative seats at the state level and the U.S. Congress.

"It's time to take a fresh look at the way we hold elections so that we can ensure full and secure access to the polls, ensure voters are informed about the candidates and provide more meaningful choices in general elections," said Richie. "This year's tiny uptick in turnout should not be cause for reassurance. Virginia should consider establishing a commission to study the problem in order to find practical and innovative solutions - solutions like instant runoff voting to help ensure majority support for winning candidates, proportional voting systems that provide fair representation in legislatures, and other reforms that will spur would-be voters to take part in their democracy."

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Established in 1992, FairVote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates and enlivens discourse on how best to achieve a democracy that respects every voice and every vote. We pursue innovative research, strategic outreach and civic education in order to promote fair access to political participation, fair elections with transparent election administration and meaningful choices, and fair representation grounded in majority rule and proportional representation for all. For more information, contact communications director Paul Fidalgo at or (301) 270-4616.