Absentee Voting Contributes to High Voter Turnout in June Primaries

Nine states and Washington, DC held presidential primaries on June 2. State and local election officials and advocates closely monitored these elections as a test case for November around what voting looks like during a pandemic. While voters faced some challenges, these elections were largely successful, and numerous states experienced high voter turnout. Idaho, Iowa, and Montana all broke records for the most votes ever cast in a primary election—in addition, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington DC all had significantly more primary turnout in 2020 as compared with 2016. Multiple factors may have driven high turnout, including the competitiveness of the races and increased availability of mail voting. Absentee voting was more common than in-person in all locations, and Maryland, Montana and Idaho saw almost all ballots cast absentee (Idaho did not open polling places).

Few clear best practices emerged for vote-by-mail elections. Iowa, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and DC sent all voters absentee ballot applications (not a ballot), and their absentee-voting rates ranged from 58% to 83%. By contrast, Pennsylvania, which sent voters a postcard with instructions on how to request a ballot, still saw 62% of ballots cast by mail.

Vote-by-mail also had challenges. Some voters reported not receiving ballots, and some ballots were delayed in the mail. In Pennsylvania, thousands of mail ballots failed to reach voters in time. At the last minute, Governor Tom Wolf extended the mail-in deadline so that these votes could still be counted, potentially delaying final results for weeks as votes are counted. Still, state and local election officials and advocates say that this primary was a test case and can smooth the process ahead of November’s general election when turnout is expected to be higher.

More information about state election rules, including information on absentee voting, is available on the Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 state profiles. Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 is NLIHC’s nonpartisan voter and candidate engagement project.