I have previously written about how the Australian Labor Party’s community preselection trials had turnout usually between 2-5% of the electorate. It prompted me to wonder whether it was the normal level of turnout for a primary or an anomaly.
While primaries in the United States are known to have much higher levels of participation, what about primaries elsewhere in the world? The United States is not the only country that uses primaries. How many participants do primaries get elsewhere and what is the usual turnout?
There are a number of examples to draw on, both party-run and state-run. In Europe, the process has been party-run. Other than the United States, it is primarily Latin American countries that have legislated primaries. Chile, Argentina and Uruguay all have state regulated and run primaries.
Most of turnout figures below are a rough calculation based on the number of participants in primaries and a party’s vote at elections.
British Labour Party
The 2015 British Labour leadership election which elected Jeremy Corbyn was organised as an open primary for the first time ever. Overall, 422,871 voters cast a ballot. This was roughly 4.5% of all Labour voters in the 2015 General Election or 0.9% of all registered voters.
French Parti Socialiste
The French Socialist Party Presidential primary had 2,879,147 voters participating. It was 16% of the total number of votes cast for Francois Hollande in the 2012 election or 6.3% of all registered voters.
Italian Democratic Party
The most recent Italian Democratic Party leadership primary in 2013 had 2,805,775 voters. This equated to 6.0% of all registered voters or 27.9% of all their voters at the preceding 2013 Italian election.
The use of primaries within the Democratic Party is also widespread. It has been used to select party leaders, mayors and regional presidents since 2005. These cross-party primaries are used to select common centre-left candidates.
The longer use of primaries and a culture of mass participation are likely to influence the higher turnout in Italy. In contrast to the previous two notable examples, Italy has a long tradition of mass politics. For example, the Italian Communist Party (a predecessor to the Democratic Party) had 2.3 million members in 1947 and received 4.3 million votes in 1946.
Portuguese Socialist Party
The Portuguese socialists held a Prime Ministerial primary for the first time in 2014. 177,350 votes were cast in the primary, approximately 10.1% of the votes they received in the 2015 General Election or 1.8% of all registered voters.
Spanish Socialist Workers Party
The Spanish socialists held a primary to select its party leader in 2014. Overall, 132,850 votes were cast by members and supporters, approximately 1.9% of the votes they received in the 2011 Spanish election or 0.4% of all registered voters.
The newly formed Spanish radical left party Podemos ran open primaries to select their candidates for European elections with 33,000 participating. In their first election, Podemos succeeded winning 7.98% of the vote and electing 5 MEPs.
Primaries were again used to select their candidates for the Spanish general election last year. Turnout, however, was extremely low. Only 59,724 or 15.8% of the 375,000 registered voted in recent primaries for the Spanish election. It is 1.1% of the votes they received in the 2015 Spanish election or 0.2% of all registered voters.
British Conservative Party
In 2009, trials of open primaries were held by the British Conservative Party. The primaries were held for the seats of Totnes and Gosport with every voter on the electoral roll sent a postal ballot. Both open primaries had a high level of voter participation, Totnes had a turnout of 24.6% of registered voters while Gosport had 17.8% of registered voters participated. Undoubtedly sending a postal ballot to everyone in an electorate resulted in a far higher turnout.
Canadian Liberal Party
In 2013, the Canadian Liberal Party used an open primary to select their party leader. This occurred after the 2011 election where they won the fewest seats in their history and were reduced to a third party.
Overall, 104,552 party members and supports participated in the election which elected Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader. Based on the number of votes received at the previous election, it was a turnout of 3.8% or 0.4% of all registered voters in 2011.
Following the election of a Liberal Government in 2015, they have abolished paid party membership and now only have registered supporters who can vote in party ballots.
United States Democratic Party
When you talk about primaries, the United States comes to mind. It invented the primary as we know it and there is worldwide attention every four years when Presidential primaries occur.
Yet, for all the talk, the turnout in party primaries in the United States on average is not as high as one would expect. In 2014, turnout was 14.8% for statewide primaries. This mid-term turnout was not an anomaly. For most of the past twenty years, primary turnout has hovered between 15% and 20% of the electorate (with 2008 being a notable exception). It is unclear if the higher than average turnout in 2016 will be another exception or the start of a new trend.
Chile introduced legislated primaries in December 2012 as part of sweeping electoral changes that removed compulsory voting. Primaries would be by the state. The use of primaries by parties were voluntary but the result was binding. Turnout in the primaries was was approximately 20%.
Argentina adopted legislated open primaries as part of a suite of reforms in 2009. The first nationwide open primaries had a turnout of 74.91% in August 2015, however, it was compulsory to vote.
Uruguay has run open primaries since 1999 with much higher turnout. Unlike other countries, parties are required to run primaries and internal party elections are also held at the same time as the primaries. Uruguay is unique with high voter turnout with compulsory voting and a system of initiative and referendum.
‘Primary’ elections in Uruguay: 1999-2014
Primaries are optional in Colombia but the state provides support to parties that wish to hold primaries. It has run primaries with turnout at 10% at a local level, however, plans for joint primaries in 2013 were cancelled due to previous “low turnout”.
What does this mean?
What this all shows is that the turnout for primaries can vary. State-run primaries tend to have much higher turnouts than party-run primaries which are more common outside the Western Hemisphere. These turnout figures also highlight that while primaries have a higher rate of participation, once the novelty wears off, turnout can fall considerably. Primaries can be a way of engaging more party supporters, however, their mere existence will not result in American levels of voter participation.