Wisconsin traditionally held partisan primary elections in September — after summer vacations were done, after students were back in school, and at a point when voters were ready to focus on choosing contenders for the November election.
But, this year, the primaries for governor, attorney general and other statewide, legislative and congressional posts will take place Aug. 12.
It is a safe bet that turnout will be absolutely dismal — probably worse than in August 2012, when the state first experimented with an August primary. That year, with a highly competitive U.S. Senate primary topping the Republican ballot, and with Democrats settling nomination fights for the 2nd Congressional District and key legislative seats, the state Government Accountability Board "optimistically" predicted a 20 percent turnout.
In fact, only about 18 percent of voters made it to the polls. In other words, if you met five Wisconsin voters on the street, four of them didn't bother to cast a ballot in the August 2012 primary.
This year, the slide in turnout could take the participation rate from 1-in-5 to 1-in-6, or worse.
What to do? Well, this year, every effort should be made to highlight the August primary date and encourage turnout. To this end, we should support the efforts of the League of Women Voters as it seeks to register voters and provide information about candidates — visit the league's website at www.lwvwi.org to check out volunteer opportunities.
In the longer term, however, every effort should be made to remove structural barriers to high-turnout primary elections. A place to begin — not a cure-all, but a practical first step — should be a decision to move the partisan primary back to September.
The move to August was supposedly made to comply with federal requirements for getting ballots to overseas voters and military voters. But the change was neither necessary, not wise.
Other states, such as Rhode Island, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Delaware, have maintained September primaries while respecting the needs of overseas and military voters. As New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says, "We were determined we were not going to change the primary ... so our discussion was: What did we need to do so we could keep the primary where we already had it?"
Wisconsin officials should be similarly determined.
Following exceptionally low turnout primaries for important posts in Maryland and the District of Columbia this year, the Washington Post declared in an editorial: "Maryland and D.C. are holding their primaries too early."
Quoting University of Maryland government and politics professor Michael Hanmer's observation that "it's detrimental to democracy to have low levels of voter participation," the Post concluded the editorial by urging Maryland and D.C. officials to examine how New Hampshire and other states "have succeeded in maintaining their traditional primary schedule."
Wisconsin officials should do the same.
Wisconsin should move to restore the September partisan primaries as part of a broader focus on achieving high-turnout primary and general elections.
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