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What The June 2 Primaries Can Tell Us About November

Under normal circumstances, we would have published this article days ago. But the increased use of vote-by-mail during the coronavirus pandemic means it has taken a few days to count the votes from last Tuesday’s primary elections; some jurisdictions are still counting. Unfortunately for impatient election junkies, this may be something we have to get used to: The results of the November election may also not be known for several days if Americans continue to vote by mail in large numbers.

But nearly a week later, we do at least know who won the major races on June 2. The biggest news came in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Steve King became the second incumbent congressman so far this year to lose in a primary.1 State Sen. Randy Feenstra defeated King by a healthy 10-point margin, 46 percent to 36 percent, and has likely punched his ticket to Washington in this deep-red district — President Trump carried it by 27 points in 2016. King is infamous for his racist and controversial comments, which came to a head last year when King wondered aloud why language such as “white supremacist” was offensive. The incident prompted Republican leadership to remove King from all House committees, which opened the door for Feenstra’s primary challenge attacking King as ineffective.

Elsewhere, it was a good day for female candidates. In 2019, the number of Republican women in the House dropped to just 13, but on Tuesday the party took a meaningful step toward diversifying its ranks, nominating women in several swing districts, including the Indiana 5th, Iowa 1st, Iowa 2nd, New Mexico 2nd and Pennsylvania 7th. And New Mexico, which has long been a pioneer at electing nonwhite women to office, looks as if it will elect a U.S. House delegation made up entirely of women of color this fall, as Hispanic or Native American women won the Democratic and Republican primaries for all three of its congressional seats.

[Related: There Is No Evidence That Voting By Mail Gives One Party An Advantage]

And although the presidential primary might seem irrelevant at this point, last Tuesday’s contests helped former Vice President Joe Biden finally clinch the nomination. He won 422 of 452 delegates allocated so far from the June 2 contests, according to ABC News’ figures, which positioned him to achieve a delegate majority on Saturday thanks to results from Guam’s caucus.2

Given the scale of the vote — nine states plus Washington, D.C., held primaries, prompting the nickname “Super Junesday” — some saw the June 2 election as a dry run for November in terms of voting amid a pandemic. But if it was, it had mixed results. On the bright side, Idaho, Iowa and Montana all broke records for the most votes ever cast in a primary election. That might sound impressive, but when we look at turnout as a share of the voting eligible population, turnout surpassed the 2016 primary in six of the 10 jurisdictions that held their primaries on Tuesday.3

Primary turnout up in some states, down in others

2016 vs. 2020 primary turnout in the 10 jurisdictions that held elections on June 2, as a share of the voting eligible population

Jurisdiction 2016 Turnout 2020 Turnout Change
Iowa 9% 23% +14
Idaho 15 26 +11
Montana 37 46 +9
New Mexico 23 28 +5
South Dakota 20 24 +4
Washington, D.C. 20 20 +1
Rhode Island 24 15 -8
Maryland 34 25 -8
Pennsylvania 34 22 -11
Indiana 36 20 -16

2020 turnout is based on preliminary data as of June 7.

Sources: State election officials, Associated Press, United States Elections project

Of course, we don’t know that the changes in turnout are predominantly driven by the pandemic. The competitiveness of the races on the ballot plays a big role as well, and the 2020 presidential primary is obviously no longer being contested (which may have driven down turnout in all of these states except Idaho and Iowa, which were holding only down-ballot primaries). But several states, including Idaho, New Mexico and South Dakota, featured less or equally competitive races in 2020 than in 2016 and still saw higher turnout, which was definitely a positive sign.

And the increased availability of mail voting may have had something to do with that. All nine jurisdictions for which we have data saw a huge spike in the share of voters opting to cast absentee ballots. Absentee voting was more common than in-person voting in every locale, and three states saw virtually every ballot cast absentee: Maryland and Montana, which mailed ballots to all registered voters, and Idaho, which did not open any polling places.

Tons of people voted by mail on June 2

The share of ballots cast absentee in the 10 jurisdictions that held primaries on June 2, and how much it increased since the 2016 primary

Jurisdiction Absentee % Change from 2016
Idaho 100%
Montana 100
Maryland 97
Rhode Island 83
Iowa 80
Washington, D.C. 69
Pennsylvania 64
New Mexico 64
South Dakota 58

Based on preliminary data as of June 7. Data from Indiana was incomplete and is therefore not included.

Source: State election officials

Beyond that, however, there is no clear pattern regarding best practices for vote-by-mail elections. Iowa, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Washington, D.C., for instance, sent every voter an absentee ballot application (so not an automatic ballot), but their absentee-voting rates ranged anywhere from 58 percent to 83 percent.4 By contrast, Pennsylvania, which merely sent voters a postcard with instructions on how to request a ballot, had 62 percent of its ballots cast absentee or by mail.

The heavy volume of mail voting also led to a resurgence of some of the issues that plagued the Wisconsin primary in early April. Many voters reported not receiving ballots they requested. In Maryland, issues with a vendor delayed the delivery of more than 1 million ballots. In Washington, D.C., enough people complained about not receiving their ballots on time that election officials eventually allowed some of them to cast their ballots via email, against the recommendations of election-security experts. And in Pennsylvania, voters waited an average of seven days to receive their ballots — two weeks in some counties. But the problems don’t stop there. In Delaware County, officials simply ran out of time to fulfill 400 absentee-ballot requests and sent out another 6,000 ballots on June 1 without return postage because they did not think any voters would be able to mail those ballots back in time. (These types of fears eventually prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to give voters in Delaware and five other counties an extra week to return their ballots.)

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In addition, many cities experienced long lines at polling places after the number of in-person voting sites was slashed (a problem exacerbated by those who never received mail ballots being forced to vote in person). Long waits were reported in Baltimore; Bozeman, Montana; Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis; and Las Cruces, New Mexico. But the worst horror stories probably came from the nation’s capital, where the requirement that poll workers clean equipment between voters and limit the number of people who could enter each polling place caused long delays. Some people reported waiting up to five hours to vote and not leaving until about 1 a.m. — which they did amid a curfew imposed as a result of the week’s protests. And although voters were supposed to be exempt from the curfew, there were social-media reports of police telling voters standing in line to vote to go home. Similarly, some voters in Pennsylvania complained of voter intimidation, as one polling place in a predominantly black ward was located in a building that houses the police station, and armed police officers in riot gear stood watch over another.

Perhaps not coincidentally, two of the places where these problems seemed most acute (Maryland and Pennsylvania) were also among the ones where turnout dropped. And amid the possibility that large numbers of voters were disenfranchised, there are now calls for election officials in Maryland and Washington to resign over the snafus. So far, this year’s primaries continue to suggest the country is not fully prepared to hold the general election in a time of crisis.

Why switching to vote-by-mail is tougher than it seems | FiveThirtyEight


  1. The first was Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois’s 3rd District, who lost to progressive challenger Marie Newman in March.

  2. However, once the small number of unallocated delegates from the June 2 primaries are assigned, we’ll look back and know that Biden clinched the nomination last Tuesday.

  3. Based on preliminary data as of June 7.

  4. Idaho also sent everyone an absentee application, but people there had no other way to vote except by absentee.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.