Turnout tricky to predict as early voting kicks off Tuesday for state's March 5 primary

Early voting starts Tuesday in Arkansas' primary and nonpartisan judicial election, and Republican Secretary of State John Thurston's office is stopping short of projecting how many of the state's 1.74 million registered voters will cast ballots in the March 5 primary.

So far this year, it's been a relatively quiet primary election season across Arkansas.

Fifteen Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are on Arkansas' primary election ballot, although several of of the most notable candidates have suspended their campaigns.

Voters in Arkansas' 3rd congressional district in the Republican primary will determine whether U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers survives a challenge from state Sen. Clint Penzo of Springdale, with the winner taking on Democratic candidate Caitlin Draper of Fayetteville.

Penzo said Friday the campaign is gaining more momentum and its grassroots support is growing every day.

"I am feeling good as we head into the final stretch," he said in a written statement. "People are fed up with Congressman Womack's voting record...

"The voters' response to our Arkansas and America First campaign is very enthusiastic and we anticipate a victory on March 5th," Penzo said.

Womack said Friday in a written statement "I'm proud of my re-election campaign and humbled to see the strong, continued support of those I proudly represent.

"It's the greatest honor of my life to serve the people of Arkansas' Third District. I encourage everyone to exercise their precious right and get out and vote!"

In the nonpartisan judicial election, Arkansans will select among four candidates for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court to succeed retiring Chief Justice Dan Kemp, and two candidates to fill the vacancy created by the June death of state Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne.

If none of the four candidates for chief justice win a majority of the votes in the March 5 election, the two top vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 5 nonpartisan judicial runoff election, held in conjunction with the general election.

"General election turnout is usually very consistent," Chris Powell, a spokesman for Thurston, said last week.

"Primary turnout, however, is very inconsistent, so it's hard to speculate," he said in a written statement. "To compare with previous presidential year elections -- in 2020, we had a 28.01% voter turnout [in the primary election] and in 2016, it was 38.39% [in the primary election]. In 2012, turnout was 21.83% [in the primary election.] We wouldn't have an official guess as to what turnout will be this time around."

The state's number of registered voters was 1.53 million in the 2012 primary, 1.67 million in the 2016 primary, and 1.74 million in the 2020 primary, and is 1.74 million in the 2o24 primary -- an increase of about 5,750 since the 2020 primary, according to figures provided by Powell.

Pulaski County Election Coordinator Amanda Dickens said voter turnout in the 2016 primary was 39.2% of registered voters in Pulaski County and turnout in the 2020 primary was 29.4% of registered voters.

"I think it will be somewhere in that range," she said. She said that there are 230,851 registered voters in Pulaski County.

Dana Caler, election administrator for the Benton County clerk's office, also said primary elections are hard to predict voter turnout.

"However based on past election data my guess for this election would be anywhere from 10 to 15% turnout during Early Voting with total turnout around 25%," she said in a written statement last week. There are 180,414 registered voters in Benton County, she said.

In the 2016 primary election, 40.67% of Benton County's registered voters cast ballots, Caler said, and in the 2020 primary election 27.42% of Benton County's registered voters cast ballots.

Arkansas is one of the states holding its presidential primary on Super Tuesday.

Other states holding their primary March 5 include Alabama, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nine Republican presidential candidates will be on the ballot and six Democratic presidential candidates will be on the ballot during Arkansas' primary election.

Besides former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the eight other Republican presidential candidates on Arkansas' primary election ballot include former President Donald Trump, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is a former governor of South Carolina; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; businessman David Stuckenberg; and businessman Ryan Binkley.

Hutchinson, DeSantis, Burgum, Christy and Ramaswamy have suspended their presidential campaigns.

Hutchinson said Friday he has endorsed Haley and he hopes she comes to Arkansas to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Besides President Joe Biden, the five other Democratic presidential candidates on the primary ballot in Arkansas include U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips; self-help author Marianne Williamson; educator Armando Perez-Serrato; events producer Frankie Lozada.; and retired plumber Stephen Lyons.

Williamson has suspended her presidential campaign.

The four candidates vying for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in the March 5 nonpartisan judicial election are state Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood and attorney and former state Rep. Jay Martin.

The two candidates vying for position 2 on the Arkansas Supreme Court are Justice Courtney Hudson and Circuit Judge Carlton Jones of Texarkana. They are seeking election to serve the rest of the term to which Wynne, who died in June, was elected in 2022.

On July 3, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her appointment of Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Cody Hiland, a former U.S. attorney, to the state Supreme Court until 2025 to fill the vacancy created by Wynne's death.

Hudson is serving her second term on the court in Position 3. She has said seeking the Position 2 seat would allow her to serve a few more years on the court before reaching the mandatory judicial retirement.

In the nonpartisan judicial election, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack is unopposed in his re-election bid for Position 5 on the high court.

In Central Arkansas, three candidates are dueling for state Court of Appeals District 6, Position 1, which includes Pulaski, Perry and Saline counties.

The candidates include attorney Molly McNulty of Little Rock, attorney Pam Hathaway of Little Rock, and Pulaski County Circuit Judge Casey Tucker of Little Rock. They are seeking the post held by Judge Rita Gruber, who is retiring.

If none of the candidates get a majority of the votes cast in the March 5 nonpartisan judicial election, the two top vote-getters will vie in the Nov. 5 judicial runoff election.

In the nonpartisan judicial election, Court of Appeals Judge Waymond Brown is unopposed for the court's District 7 position.

In the March 5 election, there are 12 contested Republican primaries and 10 contested Democratic primaries for seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives. In the Arkansas Senate, there are two contested Republican primaries and no contested Democratic primaries.

In a rematch of the 2022 Republican primary runoff with contractor and cattle farmer Timmy Reid of Marshall, freshman state Rep. Steven Walker, R-Horseshoe Bend, is seeking to survive Reid's challenge in the primary election.

"The primary election is going well," Walker said Thursday night in a written statement.

"I'm talking with northern Arkansas voters about my record of cutting income taxes and opposing Biden's disastrous agenda," he said. "I'm taking nothing for granted. I've not discussed my campaign with Governor Sanders, but I appreciate her efforts to attract new businesses to Arkansas and support Donald Trump."

In Saline County for the 2024 primary, "we expect to see at a minimum a turnout of 31.64%, but would prefer it to be much higher than that," said Trevor Villines, communications director for Saline County and a spokesman for Saline County Clerk Doug Curtis.

There are 77,050 registered voters in Saline County, he said.

"In the 2020 Primary Election we had a turnout of 31.64%, in the 2016 Primary Election we had a turnout of 41.04%," Villines said in a written statement.

"We are pulling all the stops to make our Saline County registered voters aware of the upcoming election," Villines said. "In years past we've sent out election notices, posted graphics to social media (Facebook, X & Instagram), and posted signs at high visibility locations around Saline County. While we will be doing that again this year, we've added billboards as an additional method of communication."

In Sebastian County, "Based on historical data I expect turnout to be in the low to mid 30%," Sebastian County Election Coordinator Meghan Hassler said in a written statement.

"We of course hope and prepare for more than that," she added.

There are 68,849 registered voters in Sebastian County, Hassler said.

In Washington County, Jennifer Price, election coordinator for the Washington County Election Commission, said she expects a voter turnout of about 30% of registered voters based on previous presidential election primaries, but she is preparing for more voters in case they turn out in greater numbers than expected.

Washington County has close to 138,000 registered voters, she said.

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