With open primaries for the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat at the top of the ballot in Arkansas, officials said they expect voter turnout in the May 24 election to hit close to 2018 primary levels, as early voting in primary and judicial elections began Monday.
Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston's office predicted a turnout rate of about 20% among registered voters, or 360,000 ballots cast, up slightly from 19% in 2018. There are about 1.7 million registered voters in the state.
The statewide turnout in other recent midterm primary elections was 21% in 2014 and 29% in 2010, according to Thurston spokesman Kevin Niehaus, who said the office reached this year's estimate by looking at the last two primary cycles.
"Presidential election years tend to have a higher turnout," Niehaus said. "We expect 2022 to have more ballots cast than 2014 because with redistricting there are more state and county seats on the ballot than in other elections."
As of Monday evening, 1,419 votes had been cast in Pulaski County.
Earlier in the day, Melinda Lemons, director of elections for the state's most populous county, said the May 2018 primary had about 20% turnout and about 30% of registered voters turned out in the March 2020 primary election, which included presidential primary races and took place before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I would say we would have a smaller turnout than that," she said. "Hopefully we reach 20%."
Faulkner County Clerk Margaret Darter said she also expects a turnout rate of about 20%, or about 15,000 of the county's 75,635 registered voters.
She said she anticipates voter turnout will be similar to the turnout in the 2018 primary election when almost 14,000 voters cast ballots.
If the governor's race "gets fired up" in this year's primary, Darter said, the voter turnout in Faulkner County could increase beyond what she anticipates.
Benton County election administrator Dana Caler predicted a turnout of about 20% this year, compared with 2018's 12% and 2014's 17%.
"Just because the amount of registered voters keeps going up," she said.
Washington County election coordinator Jennifer Price said she expected a higher-than-normal turnout for this year's primary and encouraged voters to take advantage of early voting to avoid lines on election day.
The county saw a 24% voter turnout rate in the 2018 primary. As of Monday evening, 673 people had voted, compared with 2018's first-day total of 438.
In other counties, officials said turnout looked lower than usual Monday.
Nesa Bishop, chief deputy for the Sebastian County clerk's office, said the number of voters was near 600 as of Monday evening. She said that number was a lot lower than normal for the first day of early voting, when it is usually over 1,000.
"We were just talking about it earlier and wondering why it was so low," she said. "I have no idea the reason behind it. We were kind of amazed about it ourselves."
Saline County Clerk Doug Curtis tweeted Monday evening that a total of 548 ballots were cast in the county that day. Curtis said earlier in the day the average number of voters is usually 1,300 to 1,400 on the first day.
On May 24, voters will decide whether Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as press secretary for former President Donald Trump, or radio host Doc Washburn will win the Republican nomination for governor.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, faces several challengers from the right. There are also Republican primaries in three of Arkansas' four congressional district races.
On the Democratic ballot, voters also have several choices for governor and U.S. Senate.
There are also two contested seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Voting in Benton on Monday morning, retiree Barbara Williams said she had considered voting for Washburn for the GOP gubernatorial nomination but voted for Sanders instead because there was too much mudslinging from Washburn's campaign.
Williams said she doesn't think former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is Sanders' father, is going to be running the state if Sanders is elected governor.
"Sarah will work for the whole of Arkansas," Williams said. "If I'm wrong, we can vote her out."
Outside the Faulkner County Courthouse, pest-control specialist Art Noel of Conway said he voted for Sanders.
"I love her," because she "didn't back down" from defending Trump, Noel said.
Meanwhile, some Pulaski County voters said they voted on the Democratic ticket because they wanted to see change in the Republican-dominated state.
"It's time for a change. I want to see people that look like me in some of those offices," said Ervin Harris Jr., a 52-year-old retired military service member from Sherwood.
Harris said he planned to vote for Chris Jones in the Democratic primary for governor. The field also includes Supha Xayprasith-Mays, Jay Martin, Anthony "Tony" Bland and James "Rus" Russell III.
Greg Bryant, an attorney in Little Rock, said he planned to vote for Martin because he knows him but said he thought Jones is an excellent choice also.
"I think Vladimir Putin would be a better choice than Sarah Huckabee Sanders," he said.
Noel, a self-described gun enthusiast, said he voted for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Jan Morgan of Hot Springs "because I liked her constitutional values on guns."
Challenging Boozman along with Morgan are Jake Bequette of Little Rock and Heath Loftis of Stuttgart.
Several voters shied away from disclosing who they planned to vote for in the U.S. Senate race.
"It's hard to say right now," said Bobby Haun of Benton, who is retired. "It's a last-minute decision. They are all good choices."
Democratic primary voters were less familiar with their party's choices to oppose the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in November.
Van McClendon of Little Rock said he voted for Natalie James, who is competing for the nomination with Dan Whitfield and Jack Foster, because he knew a little about her but didn't know anything about the others.
He lamented that the state doesn't have a "jungle primary" that allows voters to select candidates from different parties, instead of just getting one party's ballot.
"There's candidates from each party I wanted to see win, or get to the general election, anyway," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Simpson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.