The 2012 Idaho primary election resulted in a 9 percent decrease in voters in the Democratic primary - 22,594 votes - the lowest on record. The previous lowest on record was in 2010 with 27,412 votes. This is less than half the high water mark of 1994 when 57,797 Democratic votes were cast in an Idaho Primary.
So did the new closed primary law have a chilling effect on turnout? Some news media reports played up that angle prior to the election. So it turns out the Republican vote was about the same a previous years - less than 2010 but more than 2008, 2006 and 2004. But with the decline in Democratic votes was there social pressure on Democratic Party voters, people who would not want their affiliation on the public record? Are Democrats intimidated by being in the minority party? Boise State Radio put it this way:
That means anyone can file a Public Records Request with any county, and learn who you affiliated with, and which party’s primary you voted in. That public record could have consequences for voters who work jobs where impartiality is important. That includes journalists, government workers (like those in Legislative Services), or even business owners.
One way to test this idea is to hypothesize that Democratic turnout will drop more, percentage wise, in counties with larger Republican dominance than in counties that are more competitive or were Democratic votes have the edge. In other words, if you are a Democrat in a very Republican county you may think twice about voting in a closed primary.
A measure of Republican dominance is the 2010 primary election vote for the US House races, with Republican votes as a percent of the total votes for US House. This forms the X axis. The dependent variable is the percent change in Democratic vote in that county from 2010 to 2012. Overall there was a nine percent drop in Democratic turnout. But in some counties the vote increased.
One complicating factor is people can decline to declare a party affiliation and receive a nonpartisan ballot, which has nothing but usually unopposed judicial races and ballot measures. Data on nonpartisan voters is not yet available. A future analysis will be done to see if the decline in Democratic votes can be explained in part by more seeking safe harbor in a nonpartisan ballot.
Here’s the result when looking at the data:
In short, not much of a relationship. It should be a negative relationship: as Republican dominance increases change in Democratic turnout should be increasingly negative. In fact the relationship is a positive one, but there is not much correlation between the variables. Some counties with Democratic leanings or dominance showed a large drop off in turnout. At the other extreme Lemhi County stands out as being 95% Republican dominant yet saw a 104 percent increase in Democratic votes in 2012 over 2012. Many other counties of equal Republican dominance rating saw turnout drop 20, or even 40 percent.
Partisan dominance, as measured by the 2012 primary election turnout, does not seem to be a factor driving the decrease in voter turnout. It must be something else. The chilling effect that the news media purveyed in their stories does not seem to be backed up by the data. And Democrats in Lemhi County in particular are not intimidated. This year there were 169 Democratic voters, more than doubling the 83 from 2010.