Historical voter turnout in Washington
Historical voter turnout in Washington (Chart: Northwest Progressive Institute | Data: Secretary of State)

As of this evening, it’s been one week since Elec­tion Night 2015, and the num­ber of bal­lots still await­ing pro­cess­ing by coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials has dwin­dled to less than thir­ty-three thou­sand statewide. Turnout cur­rent­ly stands at 37.44%, and it looks like it will end up under forty per­cent, well below Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman’s opti­mistic fore­cast of forty-six per­cent from last month.

Any­one who fol­lows pol­i­tics, includ­ing Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate read­ers, is prob­a­bly already aware that turnout so far this year has been poor. But as coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials run out of bal­lots to add to the count, we got to won­der­ing: Just how bad is this year’s turnout com­pared to past years?

The dis­turb­ing answer is that this year’s low gen­er­al elec­tion turnout is absolute­ly unprece­dent­ed. It could be the worst in state history. 

We’re not sure whether it is or not, because the his­toric turnout data kind­ly fur­nished to us by the fine folks who work in Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman’s office only goes back to 1936. But this much we know: Turnout in 2015 will like­ly be at least the worst gen­er­al elec­tion turnout in over sev­en­ty-five years. 

That is a tru­ly sober­ing thought. So much for vote-by-mail being a turnout booster.

It is worth not­ing that, for much of Wash­ing­ton’s his­to­ry, statewide gen­er­al elec­tions were only held in even-num­bered years. In the ear­ly 1970s, state law was changed to pro­vide for state-lev­el gen­er­al elec­tions in odd-num­bered years, too. Before 1973, only local offices were con­test­ed in odd-num­bered years.

The first few such elec­tions had midterm-like turnout above a major­i­ty: 57.78% in 1973, 55.47% in 1975, 52.47% in 1977. Begin­ning in 1979, turnout in odd-num­bered years start­ed reg­u­lar­ly dip­ping below fifty percent.

Gen­er­al elec­tion turnout pre­vi­ous­ly reached a low of 40.18% thir­ty years ago, in 1985, rebound­ing to 42.32% in 1987 and 48.11% in 1989.

Since then, odd-num­bered gen­er­al elec­tion year turnout has fluc­tu­at­ed. It’s been above a major­i­ty in cer­tain years and below it in others.

But nev­er has it been as bad as this year.

The kind of turnout we’re see­ing in this year’s gen­er­al elec­tion is the kind we usu­al­ly expect to see in a Top Two elec­tion. Vot­er turnout in the 2012 Top Two, for instance, was 38.48%, a whole per­cent­age point high­er than the cur­rent 2015 gen­er­al turnout (which will rise slight­ly before cer­ti­fi­ca­tion on Novem­ber 24th).

Here is a turnout table show­ing all odd-num­bered gen­er­al elec­tions since 1973:

YearReg­is­tered Voters  Bal­lots Counted % Vot­ed

Note that per­cent­ages in this chart have been round­ed to one dec­i­mal place.

As you can see, in the more than forty years since we have held state-lev­el gen­er­al elec­tions in odd-num­bered years, we have nev­er had turnout fall below forty per­cent. But it looks like it’s going to hap­pen this year.

Historical voter turnout in Washington
His­tor­i­cal vot­er turnout in Wash­ing­ton (Chart: North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute | Data: Sec­re­tary of State)

Above is a chart show­ing vot­er turnout in Wash­ing­ton from 1936 to the present day. The high peaks are pres­i­den­tial elec­tion years. The val­leys are ini­tial­ly midterms, and then, start­ing in 1973, they are odd-num­bered years, after the state start­ed tack­ing bal­lot mea­sures and spe­cial elec­tions onto local elections.

The high­est and low­est turnout in mod­ern times and the high­est and low­est turnout in the state’s younger years are not­ed on the chart.

Con­sid­er­ing how big the turnout dis­par­i­ty has got­ten in mod­ern times, it is worth dis­cussing whether state-lev­el elec­tions should revert to being held sole­ly in even-num­bered years. This would mean that we would only con­sid­er ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da every two years, as opposed to every year.

This is how it works in Ore­gon, which also has a vote-by-mail elec­tions system.

From our per­spec­tive, it does­n’t make sense for a minor­i­ty of the state’s reg­is­tered vot­ers to be mak­ing laws for the major­i­ty. Even in midterm cycles where turnout is unusu­al­ly poor, like in 2014 or 2002, turnout has still been more than a major­i­ty, so if we only con­sid­ered ini­tia­tives, ref­er­en­da, and con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments in even-num­bered years, we would not have the few mak­ing deci­sions for the many.

Recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tions do com­pare more favor­ably to those from decades past. In 1944, Wash­ing­to­ni­ans turned out in large num­bers to vote in the nation’s final wartime elec­tion, which pit­ted Demo­c­rat Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt against Repub­li­can Thomas E. Dewey. That record high turnout went unmatched until 2008, when Barack Oba­ma squared off against John McCain.

But again, this year’s turnout is sim­ply awful. It’s embar­rass­ing. We don’t yet know what the exact fig­ure will be, but we do think it’s rea­son­ably safe to con­clude it won’t be more 40.18%, the pre­vi­ous low. By bring­ing this up now, we hope to help fos­ter a con­ver­sa­tion about what we can do to bol­ster turnout in the future, while this year’s elec­tion is still fresh in the minds of those Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who fol­low politics.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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