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Based on early election results, voter turnout in North Dakota's primary could be alarmingly low

MINOT — A total of 43,205 votes were cast in North Dakota ahead of the June 11 primary election, according to figures released Monday afternoon by the North Dakota Department of State. That total includes absentee ballots, mail-in ballots and early in-person voting.

That total is a moving target and will rise as election officials count ballots cast or postmarked through June 10. Still, the latest number is 7,834 votes short of the total number of early votes cast for the 2022 election cycle, which was 51,039.

That's bad news for those expecting high voter turnout. Remember, this is a presidential election year, when voter turnout typically spikes. The 2022 election cycle was a midterm election, and early voting in the 2024 presidential election year lags behind that year's total.

For comparison, North Dakota's primaries in the last three presidential elections in 2012, 2016, and 2020 saw 175,303, 139,957, and 160,114 votes cast, respectively. If we go by early vote totals, North Dakota may not even reach the 106,000 votes cast in the 2022 midterm elections.

Even if the 2024 primaries reach 2022 levels of vote share, it would still be a decline of over 33% from the last presidential election cycle.

One caveat is that early voting has become something of a hot potato. For a variety of largely absurd reasons that we don't need to go into here, Republican voters distrust mail-in voting. It could be that more of them are waiting until Election Day, and that the drop in early voting is just that – a drop in early voting, a change in the way voters cast their ballots, not necessarily a drop in turnout.

But even so, given the surge in voter turnout that typically occurs in presidential election years, we will likely see very, very low turnout in the 2024 primary, even if many people who would have voted by mail show up to vote in person instead.

What impact will this have on the election result?

This is likely very good news for U.S. House candidate Rick Becker, one of the two front-runners in the NDGOP primary.

Becker is a polarizing figure in Republican politics; he left the party to run as an independent against U.S. Senate candidate John Hoeven in 2022. Nevertheless, he enjoys an active and engaged support base.

In a high-turnout election, a polarizing candidate like Becker probably has no chance. But in a low-turnout election with five candidates running, could the winning candidate, at least theoretically, receive only 20 percent of the vote plus one?

It would be a cheap win, but cheap wins still count, although nothing is guaranteed. Julie Fedorchak, the other leading candidate in the race for a House seat, had a 7-point lead in the most recent public poll, and that was before former President Donald Trump endorsed her. A low-turnout voter turnout isn't a death knell for her campaign, but I think even the candidate herself would admit it's far from ideal.

The low turnout is also likely bad news for traditional Republicans running in the general election across the state, who are currently trying to hold their own despite a huge surge in spending, much of it coming from MAGA-aligned Rep. Brandon Prichard and his group, Citizens Alliance of North Dakota. That group has been sending out mail accusing traditional Republicans of wanting children to attend drag shows and read pornography at the local library.

In other words, it is prurient, disgusting nonsense, but it may be effective in motivating a certain type of voter to go to the polls and cast their vote in an election that is again expected to have a very, very low turnout.

The world is run by those who show up, they say, and the truth of that maxim is palpable here in North Dakota. The NDGOP, long our state's dominant political party, has been taken over by populist, MAGA-aligned activists who show up in large numbers to the sparsely attended meetings where party leaders and candidates are chosen. Now they could gain ground in the legislature and on the statewide ballot in an election in which North Dakota voters have been ripped off, at least based on the voting rate so far.

To paraphrase HL Mencken, voters deserve to get what they voted for, properly and thoroughly. But what about the voters who don't bother to vote at all? What do they deserve?

Maybe we'll find out soon in North Dakota.

Anna Harden

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