Port: Do we really want to empower casual voting?

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Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. — Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Dakota is conducting the June primary vote entirely by mail.

Many have predicted a record-setting turnout.

It's possible. The state sent out more than 187,000 primary ballots to those who requested them, and if all of them are returned, it would, indeed, be a record.

Yet I suspect the number returned will show a more pedestrian turnout than what was touted in certain prognostications.

As I write this, and with a week to go, numbers made available by the Secretary of State's office show about 88,000 ballots cast.


The last primary, in 2018, had just over 115,000 ballots cast. The last presidential-year primary, in 2016, saw over 139,000 votes.

The biggest primary turnout I've seen in 17 years of writing about politics in North Dakota was in 2012 when four hotly-contested initiated measures were on the June ballot, and over 175,000 votes were cast.

By the time the 2020 primary is done, we'll see a turnout that's in the vicinity of the 2016 numbers.

Despite being conducted exclusively by mail, the turnout will be about average.

Still, there has been much ballyhoo about voting-by-mail. Many seem to think that universal vote-by-mail ought to be the new normal.

I'm not sure I want to empower folks so disengaged from politics that they can't be bothered to vote unless they can do so from home.

What do we accomplish by inviting distracted, apathetic voters into the process?

In the 2018 primary, disgraced Republican secretary of state candidate Will Gardner received over 54,000 votes despite dropping out of the race weeks before . It turns out he had been convicted in a window-peeping incident on the North Dakota State University campus in 2006, yet tens of thousands of voters still cast their ballots for him.


Gardner got about 20,000 more votes than Josh Boschee, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

I'm sure some of Gardner's vote total came from people who supported him despite the whole peeping tom thing, and to be fair, he was running unopposed. Current Secretary of State Al Jaeger ended up putting himself on the general election ballot as an independent.

Still, we're talking about more than 54,000 ballots cast for a disgraced candidate who had already canceled his campaign.

That speaks to a whole lot of voters who weren't paying very close attention.

Those voters already influence our elections with their shallow choices. Do we want to enlarge their ranks by making it even easier to vote?

Maybe we could just put voting online, and we can be governed by whoever has enough name recognition to win a Facebook poll.

This isn't a partisan argument. A recent Stanford study indicates that vote-by-mail schemes have little impact on partisan turnout.

It's just that voting is the most critical thing we do as citizens, and it should never be a casual thing.


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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Election ballot mail in.jpg
Stutsman County residents will be voting in this year's June primary election via the mail. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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