NPI's Cascadia Advocate

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

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Oops, we did it again: Washington sets record for worst-ever general election turnout

For the sec­ond time in two years, Wash­ing­ton’s Novem­ber vot­er turnout has sunk to a new low, con­tin­u­ing an alarm­ing state-lev­el trend that began fol­low­ing the end of the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle in 2012.

The 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion will pass into the his­to­ry books with turnout of 37.1%, which is worse than the pre­vi­ous all-time low of 38.45% set just two years ago. Pri­or to 2015, the record for worst turnout had belonged to 1985, with 40.18%.

Below is a table show­ing turnout by coun­ty, sort­ed from best to worst.

Coun­tyReg­is­tered VotersVot­ers VotingTurnout Per­cent­age
San Juan12,9247,24356.04%
Pend Oreille8,8493,89944.06%
Grays Har­bor41,12314,42135.07%
Wal­la Walla33,55811,05432.94%

As in 2015, tiny Garfield Coun­ty had the best turnout in the state, with 75.81% of reg­is­tered vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing, while Yaki­ma Coun­ty had the worst… 28.09%. Both coun­ties are locat­ed east of the Cas­cade Mountains.

Pierce, the state’s sec­ond largest coun­ty, almost edged out Yaki­ma for the dubi­ous dis­tinc­tion of worst turnout. Only 28.56% of vot­ers there returned ballots.

Pierce’s cringe-wor­thy, embar­rass­ing­ly awful turnout is a major rea­son why Wash­ing­ton as a whole has sunk to a new low this year.

Mighty King Coun­ty was able to bol­ster its turnout from 39.17% in 2015 to 42.69% and out­per­form the state as a whole, pos­si­bly thanks in part to com­pet­i­tive munic­i­pal races in cities like Seat­tle, Belle­vue, and Burien, plus the expen­sive con­test for the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate in the sub­ur­ban 45th District.

But that wasn’t enough to off­set the turnout decline that neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed near­ly all of the state’s pop­u­lous swing coun­ties: Pierce, Sno­homish, Spokane, What­com, Clark, and Thurston. Each fared worse than in 2015.

Kit­sap was the lone major swing coun­ty not to regress, with an ever so slight increase in turnout to 38.48% from 38.18% in 2015.

Turnout in every type of elec­tion in Wash­ing­ton State has been on a down­ward tra­jec­to­ry for over five years, as men­tioned, and shows no signs of abat­ing. Take a look at the fol­low­ing graph, which com­pares elec­tions exclu­sive­ly to oth­er elec­tions of the same type. You can see that turnout is going down across the board.

Washington State Voter Turnout By Election Type, 1996-2017

This is an updat­ed ver­sion of an orig­i­nal NPI graph that we debuted last year on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate to chal­lenge Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman’s state­ment that turnout is a func­tion of what’s on the bal­lot, a claim she made in a debate with Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Tina Podlodowski.

What’s on the bal­lot cer­tain­ly influ­ences turnout, but it’s not the only fac­tor, as I wrote last year. Vot­er turnout is declin­ing across the board, regard­less of what’s on the bal­lot, and that’s plain­ly appar­ent when we com­pare elec­tions to oth­er elec­tions of the same type. The trend is unmistakable.

This is a cri­sis for democ­ra­cy that demands bold lead­er­ship. Wash­ing­ton’s Sec­re­tary of State ought to be out front sound­ing the alarm and propos­ing solu­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Kim Wyman still does­n’t seem to think there is a prob­lem. Or if she does, she’s not speak­ing out. She’s miss­ing in action.

There are steps we can take to increase aware­ness of elec­tions, low­er bar­ri­ers to vot­ing, make peo­ple feel more com­fort­able about return­ing their bal­lots, and min­i­mize elec­tion fatigue. Here are some ideas that we believe could help arrest and reverse our ter­ri­ble turnout trend. These should be explored by the Legislature.

Pro­vide pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes

Requir­ing Wash­ing­to­ni­ans to put a stamp on their bal­lot return envelopes in order to ensure deliv­ery back to the coun­ty elec­tions office is tan­ta­mount to charg­ing a poll tax. The state should make all bal­lot return envelopes stamp-free by pre­pay­ing for postage so that vot­ers don’t need to pay any­thing to send their bal­lot back through the mail if they’re in the Unit­ed States.

Auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and same day registration

Many peo­ple who are eli­gi­ble to vote don’t get on the rolls in time to par­tic­i­pate in an elec­tion. Their incen­tive to reg­is­ter then dis­ap­pears and they remain unreg­is­tered. Auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion could sub­stan­tial­ly reduce the num­ber of unreg­is­tered vot­ers, while same day reg­is­tra­tion could help those who don’t get auto­mat­i­cal­ly reg­is­tered but want to par­tic­i­pate after bal­lots have been mailed.

Move the vot­er affi­davit to the secu­ri­ty envelope 

Law­mak­ers should give vot­ers greater peace of mind by requir­ing coun­ties to put the manda­to­ry vot­er affi­davits on the secu­ri­ty enve­lope instead of thet exte­ri­or return enve­lope. This would pro­tect the sig­na­tures, tele­phone num­bers, and/or email address­es of any­one who votes by mail from being exposed to pry­ing eyes or imag­ing dur­ing tran­sit through the postal system.

Con­sol­i­date elec­tion windows

Cur­rent state law pro­vides for four elec­tion win­dows in most years: one in Feb­ru­ary, one in April, one in August, and one in Novem­ber. Local gov­ern­ments can place mea­sures on the bal­lot dur­ing any of those win­dows. Law­mak­ers should change the law to get rid of spe­cial elec­tion win­dows in Feb­ru­ary and April and move the August Top Two elec­tion to June, so that no more than two elec­tions are held in non-pres­i­den­tial years. Hold­ing few­er elec­tions would save mon­ey, min­i­mize vot­er fatigue, and poten­tial­ly allow offi­cials to devote more resources and band­width to encour­ag­ing vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in the remain­ing elections.

Stop hold­ing elec­tions in odd-num­bered years

For much of Wash­ing­ton’s ear­ly his­to­ry, elec­tions were only held in even num­bered years, and turnout was con­sis­tent­ly above 50%. We could go back to that sys­tem, which would be an even more aggres­sive reform than con­sol­i­dat­ing elec­tion win­dows. Elect­ed lead­ers from home rule coun­ties that hold their local elec­tions in odd-num­bered years might not be enam­ored with such a change, but it would save even more mon­ey and min­i­mize vot­er fatigue.

Send vot­ers offi­cial reminders to return their ballots

Instead of rely­ing on cam­paigns, polit­i­cal par­ties and the press to get out the vote in advance of the Elec­tion Day dead­line, elec­tions offi­cials should send vot­ers a reminder about each elec­tion and encour­age them to make a plan to vote if they have not already. Per­haps reminders could be sent via text as a pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment in part­ner­ship with mobile car­ri­ers. Or post­cards could be mailed to vot­ers who haven’t returned a bal­lot with­in the first two weeks of voting.

Bol­ster and expand civics education

Long-term, the best way to address sag­ging vot­er turnout is to change the habits of the next gen­er­a­tion. Research sug­gests that the more edu­cat­ed some­one is, the more like­ly they are to be a reli­able vot­er. The Leg­is­la­ture should require all high schools to pro­vide a full year of com­pre­hen­sive civics edu­ca­tion so all stu­dents learn about the rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of cit­i­zen­ship and are afford­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties to become involved in pol­i­tics out­side of the class­room. Right now, only half a cred­it is required, and that’s sim­ply not enough. The Leg­is­la­ture should also require that stu­dents be taught about the Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion and state his­to­ry as part of that com­pre­hen­sive civics course, not embed­ded in anoth­er social stud­ies course or taught only at the mid­dle school level.

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