NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional 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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