Few elections will be as pivotal in Washington State history as the November 2012 election. It is an election that could decide whether Washington steps boldly into a progressive future, or whether it falls victim to right-wing policies that benefit the top 1% while denying basic rights to many of the state’s residents.
Progressives can win big victories this November — but it will require a high voter turnout to get there. But as the August election showed, there’s a lot of work ahead to improve turnout and get voters to cast their ballots.
Despite predictions that voter turnout could reach the mid-40% range for the August statewide election, the actual numbers fell far short.
As of last Sunday, August 12th, 35.97% of registered voters cast a ballot in the winnowing election. Several thousand ballots remain to be counted, but it’s unlikely that turnout will break 40%.
Conventional wisdom holds that turnout will rise for the November election. Presidential elections typically see the highest turnout rates in Washington, as in other states. Washington also tends to have above average turnout — 62% of Washington voters cast a ballot in November 2008, compared with the national average of 58.5%.
Yet there are worrying trends that turnout could be low even in November. Polls of voter intentions show fewer people intend to cast a ballot in 2012, with young voters lagging behind their 2004 and 2008 intention levels. In 2008, of course, strong turnout from young voters helped put Barack Obama in the White House. Reduced turnout in 2010, on the other hand, helped the Republican Party retake the US House of Representatives. Privately, progressive candidates and elected officials are noticing a trend across the country of lower turnout.
Washington State has the chance to make history at the November ballot by being the first state to approve marriage equality at the polls by approving Referendum 74 and by being the first state to legalize marijuana (if I‑502 is approved). Washington also has a closely contested governor’s race, and downballot races that could decide control of the State Senate and other important offices.
High voter turnout is important for all of those races, but particularly for R‑74 and I‑502. Marriage and marijuana are two issues where the universe of undecided voters are much smaller than usual. Because there just aren’t very many voters who can be persuaded to change their views, winning those campaigns will require a focus on getting out the vote. A large turnout from King County, especially from voters in Seattle, may well be the difference for both R‑74 and I‑502.
Although the election is still three months away, now is the time to begin working to improve turnout. It starts with registration. Ask your friends and family if they’re registered to vote — and if their registration is up to date. The deadline to register for the November election is October 8 (October 29 if you’re a new voter in Washington State), but we should be encouraging people to register now. The Secretary of State’s website can help register you online, direct you to an in-person registration location, or even help you register via Facebook.
Once ballots are in the mail, which will occur in early October, getting voters to return the ballots quickly will be the next important task. Voting early is good from a logistical perspective, ensuring your ballot has been received and leaving yourself time in case there are any problems to resolve. It’s also helpful for the campaigns themselves. If more voters turn in their ballots early, that allows campaign staff and volunteers to focus on chasing down a smaller number of people, making their own GOTV efforts more targeted and more effective.
November 2012 will be a turnout election, and progressives can win it — but only if we work hard to get our family and friends to turn in their ballots. Equality, sensible drug policies, and the future of our state hang in the balance. We can’t let the right win because Washington progressives left their ballots on the kitchen table.