Thoughts On The North Dakota Primary Election Results: Republicans Had 75 Percent Vote Advantage


Last night North Dakota held its statewide primary election. The June election can be a difficult one to figure. The turnout is always lower than other elections, particularly in midterm election cycles, and it can be influenced by a few competitive races or compelling ballot measures at the local level.

That being said, perhaps we can draw some insights from them.

Turnout Was The Lowest In More Than A Decade

The total number of ballots cast tonight was 93,377 out of 545,020 in the voting age public. That’s a turnout rate of 17.13 percent, which is down significantly from previous midterm election cycle primaries.

Here’s a graph showing midterm election year primary turnouts as a percentage of the voting age public (comparing to presidential cycles wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison as presidential years get more voters out):

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There wasn’t a single competitive primary race on the statewide ballot, but there was a statewide ballot measure that drew some interest as well as some hot local races (for instance, the mayoral races in Williston in Fargo). Still, this was the lowest turnout in more than a decade (the numbers for beyond 2002 aren’t available online). While we can all decry voter apathy, it could also mean that North Dakotans are a content people right now not looking for big changes at the ballot box.

That’s obviously not good for Democrats who want North Dakotans to feel discontent so that they desire change.

Republicans Got Out The Vote

One thing the primary ballot can tell us, even in uncontested races, is how willing voters for each party might be to get out the vote. Looking at the statewide candidates for partisan office, Republican candidates collected a total of 343,658 votes while Democrat candidates got a total of 197,912. That means Republicans got about 73 percent more votes than Democrats.

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On average, Republican candidates “beat” their Democrat counterparts by 20,820 votes, though keep in mind these weren’t head-to-head matchups. This speaks more to intensity of support as opposed to preference. For Republicans, Rep. Kevin Cramer and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem took home the most votes. For Democrats it was House candidate George Sinner and Agriculture Commission candidate Doug Goehring. But really, the differences are small. Republicans, in general, just got a ton more votes than Democrats.

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Voters Weren’t Looking For Change

This is probably another bullet point from the primary that Democrats don’t want to think too much about: Voters didn’t seem to have much of an appetite for change. In the competitive local races, voters seemed to cast their ballots for the status quo. In Fargo, Mayor Dennis Walaker won another term easily over challenger Brad Wimmer 55 to 43 percent. In Williston, the other hotly contested local race, Marcus Jundt got whooped by Howard Klug 75 percent to 19 percent.

Jundt was seen as the “new blood” in Williston, while Klug (already a member of the city council) was seen as the old guard. And voters cast their ballots for the old guard.

In Fargo, Wimmer touted the need for a fresh perspective in city leadership. But a majority decided to stick with the status quo.

If that’s reflective of attitudes statewide, expect North Dakotans to stick mostly to incumbents. And the incumbents, for the most part, are Republicans.

Voters Accepted Reform Of The Initiated Measure Process

Reforming the initiated measure process can be tricky business. North Dakotans have a populist streak, and they generally like legislating at the ballot box. Yet a strong majority supported Measure 1 which requires ballot measures to be turned in 120 days before election day instead of 90.

Democrats, along with the “North Dakota Watchdog Network” (a “network” consisting of one dude and his email list) campaigned against Measure 1. Democrat Secretary of State candidate April Fairfield called the measure “deeply troubling” and an assault on our “democratic rights.”

But voters approved the measure 53 percent to 46 percent despite the opposition from Fairfield and Democrats and with really no organized support. That tells us a) that Fairfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of traction with voters and b) that North Dakota voters might be ok with another amendment to the initiated measure process in the form of Measure 4 on the November ballot.

In Summary

It’s possible to read too much into these results. Democrats could still get a win on the statewide ballot if they convince a significant number of Republican voters to jump ship in one of the races. That’s what happened for Heidi Heitkamp in 2012, and it could happen in, say, the Agriculture Commission race between Goehring and Taylor which looks to be a close one.

But in the aggregate, it’s clear that Republicans maintain their colossal partisan advantage in the state, and that Democrats don’t seem to be making many inroads.