NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Kim Wyman’s explanation for Washington’s decline in voter turnout doesn’t make sense

Last week, the League of Women Vot­ers of Seat­tle and King Coun­ty held a well-attend­ed debate between the two can­di­dates run­ning for Sec­re­tary of State this year — Repub­li­can incum­bent Kim Wyman and Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Tina Pod­lodows­ki. A key top­ic dis­cussed at the debate was what to do about vot­er turnout in Wash­ing­ton State, which has been declin­ing for years.

Here’s what the can­di­dates had to say, in their own words:

QUESTION: Next top­ic: Vot­er turnout. How would you increase vot­er turnout in our state?

TINA PODLODOWSKI: So vot­er turnout has been going down steadi­ly under the cur­rent Sec­re­tary of State — every year for the last four years she’s been in office. Some­times in look­ing at it, you com­pare it to the pri­or four year elec­tion, you look at sev­en­teen per­cent declines, four­teen per­cent declines, nine per­cent declines… How do you change that? You do a cou­ple of things. Num­ber one is the big pol­i­cy issues. Auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion. Same-day reg­is­tra­tion. Pre­reg­is­tra­tion for six­teen and sev­en­teen year olds. And postage free bal­lots, which hope­ful­ly we’ll talk about more because of what’s hap­pen­ing in Sno­homish Coun­ty today. Also, you need to do the work with coun­ty audi­tors, but also on the ground with good gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions in com­mu­ni­ties. That’s why you do that thir­ty-nine coun­ty audit. That’s why you have the num­bers that show where are the prob­lems. Is it with young peo­ple in the coun­ty? Is it par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties of col­or? Is it a par­tic­u­lar gen­der that’s hav­ing issues get­ting to the bal­lot box? You need to do that work and craft a strat­e­gy through the Depart­ment of Vot­er Engage­ment — that’s what my group would be called as Sec­re­tary of State, to make sure there’s a plan to get that done.

KIM WYMAN: So, when we’re talk­ing about vot­er turnout, let’s go back to manip­u­lat­ing data. It was brought up by The Olympian and The News Tri­bune that… that when you just make that com­par­i­son and you cher­ry pick elec­tions and you com­pare ’em, you can make some real­ly inflam­ma­to­ry assump­tions about turnout. But when you actu­al­ly com­pare what turnout is… Turnout real­ly is a func­tion of what’s on the bal­lot. And when we look at pres­i­den­tial years, it’s [the] high­est turnout year… Midterms fol­low sec­ond, and then the odd-year pri­maries and gen­er­als are the low­est turnout. And so, when you look at Wash­ing­ton State… in 2010, we had real­ly high turnout, because we had real­ly inflam­ma­to­ry issues on the bal­lot that had peo­ple fired up about tax­a­tion. So, what I’ve always tried to do, as Coun­ty Audi­tor and now as Sec­re­tary of State, is to do things that real­ly empow­er peo­ple to get their bal­lot in eas­i­ly. We were the first coun­ty in the state to have drop box­es, for exam­ple. When I left Thurston Coun­ty, we had more drop box­es than King Coun­ty did at the time, and we were a tenth of the size of King Coun­ty. So it’s about inno­v­a­tive ideas. 

I was present at the debate and found Wyman’s answer to the turnout ques­tion very dis­ap­point­ing and puz­zling. If inflam­ma­to­ry tax ini­tia­tives dri­ve turnout, then the pres­ence of Tim Eyman’s con­tro­ver­sial and incred­i­bly destruc­tive I‑1366 on the bal­lot last year ought to have helped moti­vate peo­ple to return their ballots.

Instead, we saw the worst gen­er­al elec­tion turnout in the his­to­ry of the State of Wash­ing­ton. Yes, you read that cor­rect­ly… the worst gen­er­al turnout ever!

What’s on the bal­lot can influ­ence turnout — but it’s hard­ly the only factor.

You’d think our incum­bent Sec­re­tary of State would be alarmed at the down­ward spi­ral we have been see­ing with vot­er turnout — a trend I doc­u­ment­ed last month here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. But Wyman does­n’t seem to want to acknowl­edge that the prob­lem exists, let alone offer solu­tions to address it.

Tina Pod­lodows­ki is cor­rect when she says vot­er turnout is declin­ing, but she con­tin­ues to be crit­i­cized by reporters for a video and a graph her cam­paign pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished that don’t dis­tin­guish between dif­fer­ent types of elections.

“Pod­lodows­ki paints a mis­lead­ing pic­ture, com­par­ing turnouts from elec­tions that have lit­tle in com­mon,” was how The Seat­tle Times’ David Gut­man char­ac­ter­ized it yes­ter­day in a sto­ry for the state’s news­pa­per of record.

Con­text does mat­ter, but what the data shows is that every statewide elec­tion that has been held dur­ing Kim Wyman’s tenure as Sec­re­tary of State has seen low­er turnout than the com­pa­ra­ble elec­tion four or eight years pri­or. There’s not even one elec­tion that’s bucked the trend. Some­times the declines are slight, and some­times they’re steep. But turnout is declin­ing across the board. That’s a fact.

To illus­trate this point, here is a brand new chart, cre­at­ed by NPI, that com­pares vot­er turnout in sim­i­lar elec­tions in Wash­ing­ton State. And by that, I mean that pres­i­den­tial year gen­er­al elec­tions are being com­pared to pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial year gen­er­al elec­tions, midterms to midterms, local elec­tions to local elec­tions, and so on. There are a total of nine dif­fer­ent elec­tion types being com­pared in this chart, and the data points for each type are plot­ted on their own line. The chart shows data going back twen­ty years in an attempt to offer mean­ing­ful context.

Under Kim Wyman, Washington's voter turnout is declining

Some notes:

  • The first elec­tion in the chart is the Sep­tem­ber 1996 pri­ma­ry elec­tion, held in a pres­i­den­tial year. The last is the August 2016 Top Two election.
  • The fig­ures used for the com­par­isons here are per­cent­ages — specif­i­cal­ly, the per­cent­age of reg­is­tered vot­ers who returned bal­lots in each election.
  • All per­cent­ages were pro­vid­ed by data pub­lished online or sent to NPI by the Sec­re­tary of State’s office.
  • There are two types of local elec­tion years: those that fol­low a pres­i­den­tial year and those that pre­cede one. Local elec­tions that fol­low a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion are clas­si­fied as “Local Year A” and those that pre­cede as “Local Year B”. Because many local posi­tions are for four year terms, Local Year A elec­tions are most sim­i­lar to oth­er Local Year A elec­tions, and vice versa.
  • Each line, with two excep­tions, con­tains a data point every four years, or, in the case of the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, every eight years.
  • Data points for the 2001 and 2003 blan­ket pri­maries aren’t includ­ed because the Sec­re­tary of State does not have com­plete statewide num­bers for them.

Notice how every line — every line — is present­ly point­ed down­ward. Again, across the board, look­ing at every type of elec­tion, turnout is head­ed in the wrong direc­tion. That is true even so far this year — and this is a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year!

Now, as I said in my pre­vi­ous post, Kim Wyman did­n’t cause this alarm­ing trend. But she isn’t doing any­thing to arrest it or reverse it. And she should be.

Gut­man and his edi­tors at the Times opt­ed not to do a deep dive into Wash­ing­ton’s turnout data for the sto­ry they ran yes­ter­day. For con­text and com­men­tary, they turned to a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da, who rein­forced and repeat­ed Wyman’s excus­es for the state’s recent poor turnout.

“I didn’t fault Wash­ing­ton at all for hav­ing a low turnout; peo­ple have to have a rea­son to vote,” said Michael McDon­ald, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da who runs the U.S. Elec­tions Project that tracks his­tor­i­cal elec­tion data. “If there aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pet­i­tive races at the top of the bal­lot, that’s going to dri­ve turnout much more than some of these changes.”

Elec­tions are most­ly not com­pa­ra­ble to one anoth­er; turnout in pres­i­den­tial years is high­er than in midterm years, which, in turn, are high­er than in off-year elec­tions. Even among sim­i­lar elec­tions, turnout varies based on fac­tors like whether there’s a com­pet­i­tive U.S. Sen­ate or guber­na­to­r­i­al race on the bal­lot, or a high-pro­file initiative.

But turnout in off-year elec­tions (held in odd-num­bered years) has declined since 2011, set­ting a record-low last year. Turnout statewide dropped from 53 per­cent in 2011, to 45 per­cent in 2013 and 39 per­cent last year. Wyman says that’s part of a nation­al trend. She said Wash­ing­ton still had high­er turnouts than most places.

“You guys are doing pret­ty good on turnout,” McDon­ald said. “You could be doing bet­ter, but you’re doing pret­ty good.”

We dis­agree with Pro­fes­sor McDon­ald. Wash­ing­ton is not doing “pret­ty good” with respect to vot­er turnout. Out­side of the last two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions — the only recent elec­tions we’d char­ac­ter­ize as “pret­ty good” — Wash­ing­ton’s  turnout late­ly has ranged from okay to mediocre to his­tor­i­cal­ly abysmal.

When less than a major­i­ty of the reg­is­tered vot­ers are vot­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a gen­er­al elec­tion, it means laws are being made and office­hold­ers elect­ed by the few, not the many. That’s unhealthy for a democ­ra­cy. That’s not some­thing we should accept. We should have high stan­dards for ourselves.

Part of the prob­lem we have stems from how we talk and think about elec­tions. Case in point: There is no such thing as an “off year” elec­tion, there are only “on” years. In Wash­ing­ton, every year is cur­rent­ly an elec­tion year and every elec­tion mat­ters. “Off year elec­tion” needs to be ban­ished from every­one’s vocabulary.

Incum­bent Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to sound the alarm about our turnout prob­lem and pro­pose solu­tions to address it. Instead, she keeps try­ing to make it sound like the trend is some­thing she has no con­trol over. Wash­ing­ton is not immune to nation­al trends, to be sure, but if there’s a bad trend affect­ing the whole coun­try, then we want to be buck­ing that trend.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions is not some kind of nat­ur­al force like the tides. It is with­in our pow­er to bol­ster turnout, and one way to do that is to elim­i­nate bar­ri­ers to vot­ing. We ought to have more drop box­es, pre­paid postage on bal­lots, auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, and same day reg­is­tra­tion, for instance.

Those are reforms Tina Pod­lodows­ki embraces. Kim Wyman? Sad­ly, not so much. They’re sim­ply not part of the vision she has out­lined for the next four years.

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