Washington Voter Turnout, 1936-2015

For the past three and a half years, Wash­ing­ton Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman has served as the lone Repub­li­can in the state’s exec­u­tive depart­ment, hav­ing tak­en over for Sam Reed fol­low­ing the 2012 pres­i­den­tial election.

In that time, Wash­ing­ton has expe­ri­enced an extreme­ly wor­ry­ing decline in vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in last year’s worst-ever gen­er­al elec­tion turnout.

Wyman has repeat­ed­ly claimed that turnout isn’t some­thing she has any con­trol over, say­ing her job is to admin­is­ter elec­tions, not get peo­ple to vote in them.

Wyman’s 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Tina Pod­lodows­ki sees it dif­fer­ent­ly. She thinks the job is much more than that. “We need a vot­ing sys­tem that gives every­one equal access to our right to vote! As Chief Vot­ing Offi­cer, Tina will restore Wash­ing­ton as a nation­al leader in democ­ra­cy,” her cam­paign web­site says.

Pod­lodows­ki is an enthu­si­as­tic backer of the Wash­ing­ton Vot­ing Rights Act, sup­ports Ore­gon-style auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, and wants to fig­ure out how to pro­vide pre­paid postage so that vot­ers don’t need stamps to return their bal­lots. She’s been cam­paign­ing on expand­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion and low­er­ing bar­ri­ers to voting.

Read­ing Wyman’s web­site, you would­n’t know that Wash­ing­ton has a vot­er turnout prob­lem, because Wyman does­n’t acknowl­edge one exists. On her web­site, she has an “Accom­plish­ments” page, where her cam­paign says:

Wash­ing­ton State leads the nation in vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and elec­tions inno­va­tion. I am proud to have worked in elec­tions for the past 23 years, over­see­ing over 100 elec­tions at the coun­ty and state lev­el. Wash­ing­ton con­sis­tent­ly ranks amongst the top states for vot­er turnout, bal­lot acces­si­bil­i­ty, and vot­er out­reach and information.

Wyman goes on to out­line her pri­or­i­ties for the next four years:

While we’ve accom­plished much in the Sec­re­tary of State’s Office, we have more to do. Start­ing next year, I will work to reform our Pres­i­den­tial Pri­ma­ry with an ear­li­er date and the return of the unaf­fil­i­at­ed bal­lot option for vot­ers. I want to fin­ish the elec­tions tech­nol­o­gy mod­ern­iza­tion project that we began with all 39 coun­ties two years ago to update our vot­er reg­is­tra­tion sys­tems. I also want to pro­tect our state’s rich his­to­ry by co-locat­ing our State Library, State Archives and Records Cen­ter into a sin­gle loca­tion to improve pub­lic access and effi­cien­cy. This is what Wash­ing­to­ni­ans expect and deserve.

Notice what’s miss­ing? Increas­ing vot­er turnout!

Pod­lodows­ki has tried to hold Wyman account­able by point­ing out that vot­er turnout has been in decline dur­ing Wyman’s tenure in office.

Pod­lodowski’s cam­paign pro­duced a chart to illus­trate this point, but unfor­tu­nate­ly the chart did­n’t include anno­ta­tions or put the data in con­text, which left her open to charges of mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

On Fri­day, Wyman sent out a fundrais­ing appeal to her sup­port­ers with the sub­ject line “Truth Mat­ters”, in which she attacked Pod­lodows­ki as “not qual­i­fied” to serve as Sec­re­tary of State. The email, signed by Wyman, read in part:

I am grate­ful to The Taco­ma News Tri­bune and The Olympian for cor­rect­ing the mis­in­for­ma­tion and false sta­tis­tics that my oppo­nent, Tina Pod­lodows­ki, has been circulating.

They point out that Podlodowski’s claim that vot­er turnout has fall­en dra­mat­i­cal­ly is laugh­ably wrong, because it con­fus­es dif­fer­ent kinds of elec­tions, and ignores nation­wide trends that have been occur­ring for decades. Anoth­er reporter called Podlodowski’s tac­tics “pret­ty decep­tive” – more evi­dence that Pod­lodows­ki is sim­ply too par­ti­san and unqual­i­fied to run our elec­tion system.

Take a moment to appre­ci­ate the irony here. Kim Wyman, her­self a par­ti­san can­di­date for a par­ti­san statewide office, says her oppo­nent Tina Pod­lodows­ki is “sim­ply too par­ti­san and unqual­i­fied” to take over for her… all while refus­ing to acknowl­edge that vot­er turnout is down and that action is sore­ly need­ed to reverse this dan­ger­ous trend. Gee, that seems… pret­ty decep­tive.

Let’s take a look at the data that Wyman con­ve­nient­ly does­n’t both­er to share on her web­site or in cam­paign materials.

Here is a chart show­ing vot­er turnout going all the way back to the 1930s, when vot­er reg­is­tra­tion began. That’s con­text for you!

Washington Voter Turnout, 1936-2015

As we can see, there are moun­tains and val­leys in the chart. The moun­tains cor­re­spond to pres­i­den­tial years, when there is high­er inter­est and high­er turnout. The val­leys ini­tial­ly cor­re­spond to midterm years, up until the 1970s, when Wash­ing­ton began hold­ing gen­er­al elec­tions in odd-num­bered years. Past the 1970s, the val­leys cor­re­spond to odd-num­bered years.

Under Wyman, Wash­ing­ton has expe­ri­enced con­sec­u­tive low turnout elec­tions. Every year is dif­fer­ent, so it’s tricky to make apples-to-apples com­par­isons, but we can see there’s a trend going on, and it’s not a good one.

Let’s start with 2013, Wyman’s first year as Sec­re­tary of State. 2013 was an odd-num­bered local elec­tion year that fol­lowed a pres­i­den­tial year. The last such sim­i­lar elec­tion was in 2009, which took place after the state’s shift to vote-by-mail was large­ly com­plete. In 2013, as in 2009, there was a com­pet­i­tive Seat­tle may­oral elec­tion and mul­ti­ple statewide ini­tia­tives on the bal­lot to draw voters.

But, as you can see, there was a drop in turnout in 2013 vs. 2009.

  • 2009 Top Two turnout, statewide: 31.04%
  • 2013 Top Two turnout, statewide: 25.99% (-5.05)
  • 2009 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 50.89%
  • 2013 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 45.27% (-5.62)

For 2013, Wyman and her team pre­dict­ed that Top Two turnout would be 30%, and that gen­er­al turnout would be 51%. Both esti­mates were off.

Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman is fore­cast­ing 51 per­cent vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion, about aver­age for an [odd]-year elec­tion. That would be near­ly dou­ble the August pri­ma­ry turnout of 26 per­cent, but well below the 81 per­cent last year for a bal­lot that includ­ed the White House race, gov­er­nor and three oth­er wide-open statewide elec­tive offices, gay mar­riage and mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion, all 10 con­gres­sion­al seats and most of the Leg­is­la­ture, and judi­cial races.

Blog post by Wyman’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor David Ammons, Octo­ber 15th, 2013

And here’s the Top Two prediction:

State Elec­tions Divi­sion offi­cials pre­dict that Pri­ma­ry vot­er turnout will be about 30 per­cent, which is in the same range as the 2011 Pri­ma­ry (29.54 per­cent) and 2009 Pri­ma­ry (31.04 percent).

– Wyman media advi­so­ry from July 18th, 2013

The sit­u­a­tion got even worse in 2014, a midterm year. There was a dra­mat­ic decline in turnout com­pared against the pre­vi­ous midterm cycle, in 2014.

  • 2010 Top Two turnout, statewide: 40.97%
  • 2014 Top Two turnout, statewide: 31.15% (-9.82)
  • 2010 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 71.24%
  • 2014 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 54.16% (-17.08)

Now, in 2014, Wash­ing­ton had no U.S. Sen­ate race, so part of the decline can be attrib­uted to that. But Wyman had actu­al­ly fac­tored that into her erro­neous fore­cast. She was expect­ing turnout to be high­er — much higher:

Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman is fore­cast­ing a 62 per­cent vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion for the mid-term elec­tion, or rough­ly dou­ble the turnout in this year’s pri­ma­ry. The 62 per­cent fig­ure is low­er than the turnout for the two pre­vi­ous midterm elec­tions (71 per­cent in 2010 and 65 per­cent in 2006), pri­mar­i­ly because this year we have no U.S. Sen­ate race to spur pub­lic atten­tion and media coverage/advertising. In both 2010 and 2006, a Sen­ate race was on the bal­lot. The turnout in 2002, the last midterm elec­tion with­out a Sen­ate race, was 56.4 percent.

Blog post by Wyman’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor David Ammons, Sep­tem­ber 19th, 2014

The Top Two fore­cast was also off:

Sec­re­tary of State Wyman pre­dicts that [Top Two] vot­er turnout will be about 40 per­cent, which is in the same range as the 2010 [Top Two] (41 per­cent) and 2006 Pri­ma­ry (38.8 percent).

– Wyman media advi­so­ry from July 15th, 2014 (email)

Turnout in the Top Two end­ed up a measly 31%. In the gen­er­al, it was just 54%.

The down­ward spi­ral pro­ceed­ed to con­tin­ue into 2015. Com­pared to 2011, the last odd-num­bered local elec­tion year pre­ced­ing pres­i­den­tial year, turnout was again way down. The 2011 bal­lot had three statewide ini­tia­tives and two con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments; the 2015 bal­lot had two ini­tia­tives and four Eyman “advi­so­ry votes”.

  • 2011 Top Two turnout, statewide: 29.54%
  • 2015 Top Two turnout, statewide: 24.37% (-5.17)
  • 2011 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 52.95%
  • 2015 gen­er­al turnout, statewide: 38.45% (-14.5)

Last year’s 38.45% turnout set a new record as the worst gen­er­al elec­tion turnout in state his­to­ry. Few­er than two in five vot­ers voted.

Was Wyman expect­ing turnout to be his­tor­i­cal­ly bad? The worst ever? Nope:

The state Elec­tions Divi­sion has fore­cast a 46 per­cent bal­lot return in this vote-by-mail state. That is a lit­tle bet­ter than the 2013 par­tic­i­pa­tion rate and a bit low­er than pre­vi­ous [odd]-year elec­tions when bal­lot propo­si­tions and hot races seemed to spur stronger interest.

“This is the voter’s moment,” said state Elec­tions Direc­tor Lori Aug­i­no. “Most bal­lots should arrive by the week­end and elec­tion admin­is­tra­tors are eager to get a healthy response.”

– Wyman media advi­so­ry from Octo­ber 14th, 2015 (email)

Wyman’s team got clos­er to the mark with the 2015 Top Two, fore­cast­ing 26% turnout. Actu­al turnout was 24.37% — less than a quar­ter of vot­ers voted.

Local races dom­i­nate this [odd]-year elec­tion. This year’s [Top Two] fea­tures more than 220 local con­tests (and 767 can­di­dates), includ­ing nine Seat­tle City Coun­cil seats fea­tur­ing 47 candidates.

Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman, Washington’s chief elec­tions offi­cial, pre­dicts a 26 per­cent [Top Two] turnout.

– Wyman media advi­so­ry from July 15th, 2015 (email)

How about this year’s pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry? Did we buck the trend with that elec­tion? Nope — we were down com­pared to 2008, the last open seat year and the last year a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry was held. The ’08 elec­tion took place in Feb­ru­ary, but the cir­cum­stances were sim­i­lar — the Repub­li­can con­test end­ed before we could get our elec­tion going, while two Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates sol­diered on.

  • 2008 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry: 41.88%
  • 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry: 34.78% (-7.1)

The 2016 Top Two elec­tion has yet to be cer­ti­fied, but the count­ing is pret­ty much over, and we’re not going to do bet­ter than 2012:

  • 2012 Top Two turnout: 38.48%
  • 2016 Top Two turnout, so far: 34.82% (-3.66)

In the runup to the cur­rent Top Two elec­tion, Wyman shied away from mak­ing a pre­dic­tion, instead issu­ing a vague state­ment hop­ing for “strong” turnout:

Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman urges a strong turnout for the [Top Two elec­tion]. The last com­pa­ra­ble elec­tions, in 2012 and 2008, had a turnout that aver­aged 41 per­cent, with a Gen­er­al Elec­tion aver­age of dou­ble that, 82 percent.

“This Pri­ma­ry is an impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ty for the vot­ers to express them­selves on the lead­ers who will guide the state and our com­mu­ni­ties in the com­ing years,” she said. “I know peo­ple are real­ly engaged in this high­ly unusu­al elec­tion year, and I’m hop­ing they will use their bal­lots as a means of expression.”

– Wyman media advi­so­ry from July 11th, 2016

We’re not going to get any­where close to 41% turnout in this year’s Top Two.

Speak­ing of pre­dic­tions… Wyman may not have gone out on a limb with a pre­dic­tion for this elec­tion, but last autumn, she was vis­it­ing media out­lets around the state, cheer­ful­ly pre­dict­ing high 2016 turnout “across the board”:

The state’s chief elec­tions offi­cer and her staff have been busy behind the scenes, prepar­ing the stage for vot­ers in what promis­es to be an inter­est­ing and con­tentious 2016 cam­paign, nation­al­ly and locally.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, turnout is high when an open-seat U.S. pres­i­den­cy is up for grabs. In Wash­ing­ton, a prob­a­ble two-horse race between the Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent, Gov. Jay Inslee, and Repub­li­can chal­lenger Bill Bryant, should stoke a strong statewide vote.

“We’re going to see a huge year across the board,” said Wyman, on a vis­it to the Reporter office in Kent last week. “We expect a record-break­ing turnout, which is exciting.”

So far, turnout has been low­er than in past cycles — not record breaking.

The trend is clear: Wash­ing­ton State’s vot­er turnout is going down. In elec­tion after elec­tion, we’re see­ing a small­er per­cent­age of vot­ers par­tic­i­pate com­pared to the equiv­a­lent elec­tion from four years prior.

Did Kim Wyman cre­ate this prob­lem? No, but it’s fair to say she isn’t respond­ing to coun­ter­act it — and an aggres­sive response is what is needed.

Wyman and her peo­ple have cer­tain­ly seen this data — they know few­er vot­ers are vot­ing. But Wyman’s reac­tion has been essen­tial­ly to shrug. And her 2016 cam­paign does­n’t even want to admit there’s a prob­lem. That’s not leadership.

Sad­ly, no one in Wyman’s par­ty seems inter­est­ed in hold­ing her account­able, even though the par­ty’s strate­gists have assert­ed that a fail­ure of Repub­li­can vot­ers to turn out in 2012 cost Rob McKen­na the gov­er­nor’s mansion.

(As reporters know, Bill Bryan­t’s cam­paign has harp­ing on this point non­stop for months, and Randy Pep­ple has been grous­ing about it for the last three years.)

Want more evi­dence that Wyman’s not deliv­er­ing for Wash­ing­to­ni­ans? The Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts main­tains a project called the Elec­tions Per­for­mance Index. The pur­pose of this project is help elect­ed offi­cials like Wyman and the peo­ple who work for her in the Elec­tions Divi­sions do the following:

  • Eval­u­ate elec­tions based on data, not anecdote.
  • Com­pare the per­for­mance of elec­tions across states and time.
  • Iden­ti­fy poten­tial prob­lem areas that need to be addressed.
  • Mea­sure the impact of changes in pol­i­cy or practice.
  • High­light trends that oth­er­wise might not be identified.
  • Use data to demon­strate the need for resources to state and local policymakers.
  • Edu­cate vot­ers about elec­tion administration.

How did Pew put it togeth­er? Answer:

Pew part­nered with the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy to bring togeth­er an advi­so­ry group of state and local elec­tion offi­cials and aca­d­e­mics from the country’s top insti­tu­tions to guide devel­op­ment of the index. The advi­so­ry group held a series of meet­ings begin­ning in July 2010 to select the best ideas from indices in oth­er pub­lic pol­i­cy areas, iden­ti­fy and val­i­date exist­ing data sources, and deter­mine the most use­ful ways to group avail­able data.

The index tracks 17 dis­tinct indi­ca­tors of elec­tion per­for­mance, which were select­ed from more than 40 prospec­tive mea­sures based on their com­plete­ness, con­sis­ten­cy, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and validity.

So, how does Wash­ing­ton stack up against the oth­er states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia? Well, as recent­ly as 2012, we ranked twelfth, but since Kim Wyman took over, we’ve inglo­ri­ous­ly dropped to twen­ti­eth place. (In 2008, Wash­ing­ton ranked eighth; we dropped to twelfth place in 2010.)

Ore­gon, mean­while, has been head­ing in a pos­i­tive direc­tion. From 2012 to 2014, under Kate Brown (who is now Gov­er­nor of the Beaver State), Ore­gon moved from twen­ty-third place to tenth, while we slid back­wards. Wash­ing­ton now ranks below Ohio, Illi­nois, and Nebras­ka. (Ida­ho, Wash­ing­ton’s oth­er neigh­bor, remained a cel­lar dweller, drop­ping from forty-sixth to forty-eighth, as did Cal­i­for­nia, the nation’s largest state, which went from forty-ninth to fiftieth).

The con­clu­sion the data in this post sup­ports is a sober­ing one, to be sure. Tina Pod­lodowski’s chart may not have made the point well, but we think Pod­lodows­ki is absolute­ly cor­rect when she asserts that vot­er turnout is down and that Kim Wyman’s response to this awful trend has been inad­e­quate and unacceptable.

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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