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Washington’s voter turnout has been declining under Kim Wyman, data shows

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.