Georgia holds a primary Tuesday, but will voters show up?


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There are roughly 5 million active voters in Georgia. Only about one-fifth of them may decide Tuesday’s primary election.

Predictions of average-to-low turnout for the earliest primary in state history have many candidates scrambling to get supporters to the polls, with some hoping thinner attendance will give them a ballot-box advantage.

Many state and congressional races feature multiple candidates, raising the likelihood of July runoffs — when turnout could slump even further because of summertime diversions such as family vacations.

“Historically, it’s pretty consistent,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said of Tuesday’s expected numbers. In 2010, Georgia’s most recent midterm primary saw just over 1 million of the state’s voters cast a ballot — or about 22 percent.

Turnout nationally tends to dip during nonpresidential elections. Earlier this month, North Carolina saw about 16 percent of its voters turn out for its primary.

A bright spot this year for Georgia, however, is that early voting wrapped up Friday with more than 239,000 ballots cast — 26,000 more early voters than four years ago. The jump pleasantly surprised Kemp, who hoped several high-profile contested races on this year’s ballot would bump up interest, overcoming any confusion created by the earliest-ever primary date.

A federal judge ordered the state last year to move up its federal primary to allow for at least 45 days of absentee voting by military and overseas voters in any runoffs for federal office. Gov. Nathan Deal then signed legislation in January to put state and county offices on the same schedule.

“I’ve been hearing from some of the candidates about people not being aware” the primary is Tuesday, Kemp said. “I think people who traditionally vote in primaries know it’s May 20. But no matter how much we do, there are just some people who just don’t participate. It’s hard for me to understand.”

Several campaigns predict only about 600,000 voters will head to the polls, drastically below the 2010 primary total. But local-level elections officials, including those in metro Atlanta, said they expect turnout to follow historical patterns at 20 percent to 25 percent.

Contested races “always gets things going, but it’s sort of countered by the fact that it’s an early primary,” said Janine Eveler, director of Cobb County elections, who added a blunt example of residents who didn’t know the date: “my own family.”

According to Federal Election Commission data, campaigns and outside groups have spent $34 million in Georgia on U.S. House and Senate races in this election cycle so far — bombarding voters with television ads, mail and phone calls. But many voters still don’t show up at the polls until a general election or presidential race.

Dov Wilker, a 32-year-old nonprofit director, suspects that many voters are tuning out the news.

“The ads are everywhere, but I think people are still not aware,” Wilker said. “It’s a nonpresidential year, but we still have two big races. I just don’t think people realize how important it is.”

His wife, Julie Jacobson, interjected: “I have been inundated with direct mail and ads. And not many actually have details about when the election is. I can’t believe it.”

Others think busy lives are taking priority over politics.

“I think people just aren’t used to May 20 voting,” said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who is trying to move across the Capitol but is in a tough fight in the Republican U.S. Senate primary race. “You’ve got high school graduation. You have proms. You have other issues. I’ll say this: It’s remarkable when you consider how many millions of dollars have been spent in the state of Georgia just in the past month on all levels because of the down ticket.”

Sharon Gilchrist, a retired educator, was at a senior center event this month when Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves predicted a turnout of about 20 percent in his vote-rich area. She scoffed at the estimate.

“Why would we even think about low turnout in this election?” said Gilchrist, who is in her 70s. “I care deeply about keeping the Senate for the president. Twenty percent turnout?”

For some candidates, low turnout suits them just fine. U.S. Rep. Paul Broun and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, GOP contenders for the open Senate seat, believe they will fare better if turnout is muted because their campaigns rely on fervent supporters who will turn out regardless.

Ditto for former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, one of two GOP candidates challenging Deal. Pennington openly predicts that turnout will be minuscule — and that the low participation will directly benefit his campaign.

“We’ve been quite surprised about the reception we’ve been getting,” Pennington said. “And we’re targeting only the people most likely to vote in the primary.”

The governor held a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday on the banks of Lake Lanier aimed at reminding his supporters of the upcoming contest. His campaign expects a clean victory — one indication is a trip on Deal’s schedule for Israel a month before the runoff — but anything short of majority approval could harm his campaign.

“It’s important for all of us to emphasize to people that Tuesday is the primary election day. It’s earlier than we’ve been accustomed to, but we need to make sure people turn out to vote,” he said. “I know that in some parts of the state school is still going on, but hopefully that turnout will be good.”

Michelle Nunn, the Democratic front-runner for the Senate, also faces the first ballot test in her political career. Nunn, who is running against three lesser-known rivals, spent Saturday morning at a southwest Atlanta elementary school volunteering with about 300 supporters.

“I hope that we can get as many people out as possible. We’ve been working hard, sending out tens of thousands of phone calls to volunteers and showcasing the importance of early voting,” she said. “We’re trying to send the message that there’s nothing more important than participating in democracy.”