You have probably noticed the familiar appearance of campaign signs in lawns and on the sides of highways in Southeast Arkansas. The March 1 Preferential Primary and Non-Partisan General Election, also known as the “SEC Primary,” is quickly approaching. Early voting begins on February 16th. The reference to the storied athletic conference is due to that fact that several southern states within the region have made efforts to hold their presidential primaries on the same day. Traditionally, Arkansas has held its primary in late spring or early summer. However, last year, the Arkansas General Assembly sought to move up the date of the state’s 2016 primary to March 1. The earlier date, it was reasoned, would increase the influence of Arkansas voters in the presidential nomination processes—as the state would join others that were holding primaries on the same day. This coordination results in a great deal of delegates being up for grabs on the same day. Therefore, presidential candidates are encouraged to campaign in the region. We have already begun to witness the effect of participating in the “SEC Primary.” For example, last week, Donald Trump hosted a rally in Little Rock, and Senator Ted Cruz has already visited the state a couple of times over the last few months—most recently at a church in North Little Rock. While it is anyone’s guess as who will win the Democratic and Republican presidential primary contests in Arkansas, a recent poll produced by Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College reported Clinton and Cruz were the early favorites.
Despite the excitement and attention the “SEC Primary” draws, perhaps the most significant races on ballots in our neck of the woods will be those for offices at the state and local levels—many of which are non-partisan. Among the non-partisan races in and around the state are those for positions on the State Supreme Court (Chief Justice and Associate Justice) as well as seats on Appellate and District Courts. Arkansas voters passed Amendment 80 in 2000 which resulted in non-partisan state judicial elections. The non-partisan status of these contests does not significantly alter the campaign practices of those competing for these jobs, however. You may have begun to see television advertisements for Judge Dan Kemp and State Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson. Tuesday’s Arkansas Democratic-Gazette reported that a Washington D.C.-based group—the Judicial Crisis Network—had purchased over $300,000 worth of ad space on state television stations. If the Judicial Crisis Network’s first advertisement is an indication of what is to come, this money will likely be used to run ads casting Justice Goodson in an unfavorable light. Despite the smattering of television ads, most of the attention has been focused on the presidential primary rather than these important state and local elections. Given the importance of the races found lower on the ballot, that is unfortunate.
Since much hinges on the outcomes of the upcoming electoral contests, you might wonder, “How many of us go to polls for a Preferential Primary and Non-Partisan General Election?” In determining voter turnout, I rely on the voting-eligible population (VEP), calculated by University of Florida political science professor, Michael P. McDonald. The VEP accounts for a state’s proportion of non-citizens; people who may be of legal age to vote, but are not permitted to do so. According to McDonald, 27% of eligible Arkansans voted in the 2008 state primary contests, while only 16% voted in the 2012 primary and non-partisan general election in our state. Given these recent turnout rates, a reasonable person might expect a relative few among us to participate. I hope we buck this trend. I hope to see you at the polls.
John C. Davis is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and writes a regular column for Southeast Arkansas media outlets.