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Contentious senate race expected to drive voter turnout for North Dakota midterms

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Voters fill in their ballots at the UND Wellness Center during the 2018 primary election Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Officials predict a high voter turnout for the midterm elections, in part because of a contentious senate race and a highly polarized political climate.

"Often people feel like 'I've got other things to do, I'm not voting this time because it's not that big of a deal.' But this time you've got a narrow control of congress, you've got a president that's highly polarizing, you've got a very hot Senate race," said UND political science Professor Bo Wood. "There's a lot of things that have come together that should make turnout high anyway, but then you add on the Kavanaugh stuff and you add on the migrant caravan—it's just thing after thing after thing. And all of those together are pushing people from both sides of the spectrum to come out that might not otherwise do so."

The number of absentee and vote-by-mail ballots cast has already exceeded the total number returned during the primary, state Elections Director John Arnold said. During the primary there were 35,473 absentee or mail-in ballots returned and 45,814 had been received by Wednesday afternoon.

As of Monday, Grand Forks County received 4,274 absentee ballot requests and it received 2,331 completed absentee ballots, according to County Auditor Debbie Nelson.

Typically, a large portion of the ballots are requested and returned within the last two weeks, Arnold said, so the high number of applications is a good indication of high participation.

"We're expecting it to be high, but what that actually looks like in the end, I don't know," he said. "We don't have voter registration, so it's not like we can say we're expecting 60 percent of a set number that registered to vote, so it's kind of a guess."

Scott McNeil, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the party is expecting to see more voters than in previous midterm elections because of population growth, competition in the Senate race and the party's increased efforts to encourage voting.

McNeil said the party has expanded field programs and is focused on educating people on how to vote. The party has workers on reservations to help Native Americans vote after a Supreme Court decision ruled voter ID addresses cannot be a post office box, which affects many who live on reservations.

"We've been hearing from Native Americans who have been kind of motivated by the court ruling to vote for the first time in their lives," McNeil said.

A request for comment from the North Dakota Republican Party was not returned by the time of publication.

Statewide turnout for the last midterm election was 46.8 percent in 2014, 47.9 percent in 2010 and 44.5 percent in 2006. Turnout for presidential elections is significantly higher—in North Dakota there was 61.29 percent turnout in 2016, 61.16 percent in 2012 and 64.89 percent in 2008.

Wood said midterm elections have held less meaning historically because there are fewer competitive or big-name races. Wood said he expects turnout this year to be "more than in 2014, but less than we saw in 2016" because of increased voter energy.

There has never been a midterm election with higher turnout than a presidential election. Wood said it's possible that turnout could rival that of a presidential election, but he thinks it's unlikely.

"This is the most energy we've seen for a midterm in a long time," Wood said. "I don't think we've ever had midterms mean as much as they do now. But without a presidential candidate on the ballot I think there will be a lot of people who think they're going to vote and then when it comes down to it might not."

Grand Forks County consistently has the lowest voter turnout, more than 20 percentage points lower during some elections than in surrounding counties. During the 2014 midterms, the county saw a 38.49 percent turnout, while nearby Nelson County saw a 59.48 percent turnout. Wood said areas with a higher concentration of young people often have lower voter turnout.

Wood said the young vote could be the deciding factor for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's Senate run. The Democratic party has increased its overall presence and has active members on all of the state's major campuses, McNeil said he expects to see an increase in voters of all ages.

It's impossible to predict whether there will be an increase in young voters this election, but Wood said once a person begins voting they are likely to vote again in future elections.

"People have been trying to get young people to turn out and participate at levels that are proportionate to who they are in the population since the '60s—that's the last time that they were a factor," Wood said.