After spiraling downward across elections for more half a decade, voter turnout in Washington State is finally on the rise, thanks in part to the removal of barriers to voting and thanks in part to the resistance and backlash to Donald Trump’s regime.
As of this morning, voter turnout in the August 2018 Top Two election stood at 38.45%, a level of participation not seen since 2012, when Barack Obama was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President for the second time.
An estimated 78,587 ballots remain left to be counted, which means the percentage will go higher before the election is certified a week from this Tuesday. If all the remaining estimated ballots are counted, turnout will climb above 40%.
And that would put us above the mark set in 2012.
Surpassing 40% would also be a nice symbolic accomplishment. The last time we saw August turnout that high was eight years ago, during the 2010 midterms.
Thanks to King County’s leadership, this election is the first in which every Washington voter was provided with prepaid postage on their ballot return envelopes. Stamps are no longer needed to return a ballot through the mail, which means that every post office is now effectively a ballot drop box.
Meanwhile, the number of drop boxes has also been increased as a consequence of legislation approved last year. It’s never been easier to return a ballot.
The turnout we’re seeing in this election is evidence that removing barriers to voting can have a positive effect on turnout.
Next year, more of the Access to Democracy bills are set to be implemented, including automatic, pre, and same day voter registration. These much needed changes will hopefully continue to lift turnout.
Here’s the percentages for every August Top Two election, going back ten years:
- 2018 Top Two (in progress): 38.45%
- 2017 Top Two (local year): 26.92%
- 2016 Top Two (presidential year): 34.88%
- 2015 Top Two (local year): 24.37%
- 2014 Top Two (midterm year): 31.15%
- 2013 Top Two (local year): 25.99%
- 2012 Top Two (presidential year): 38.48%
- 2011 Top Two (local year): 29.54%
- 2010 Top Two (midterm year): 40.97%
- 2009 Top Two (local year): 31.04%
- 2008 Top Two (presidential year): 42.60%
Prior to 2008, Washington held an open primary (also called a pick a party primary) as its preliminary election, in which voters chose nominees for partisan offices.
Here are the same Top Two percentages plotted on a chart:
The “mountains” in the chart are presidential and midterm election years; the “valleys” are local election years. Notice that even in the even-numbered years, turnout was on a downward trajectory. 2016 had worse turnout than 2012, for example, and 2014 had worse turnout than 2010.
When making comparisons, it is best to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, bananas to bananas, and so on. So when we’re looking at turnout, the most similar election is the one held four years ago in an equivalent cycle.
There are nine main election types, not counting special elections in April and February: a preliminary and a general election corresponding to each year in a four year cycle (presidential, local, midterm, local) and the presidential primary.
By our reckoning, this is only the second election in six years in which turnout has climbed above a preceding election of the same type.
The first to buck the falling turnout trend was last year’s Top Two election, which had slightly higher turnout (26.92%) than its 2013 predecessor (25.99%).
As we can see, the 2017 November general election sadly did not buck the trend.
Turnout in that election — which was a pitiful 37.10% — ignominiously became the worst in state history. More voters have already voted in this Top Two election than voted in last November’s general election, which really says something, because those are different types of elections and not directly comparable!
There’s more we can do to make voting easier and encourage people to vote, but we can be proud of the steps we’ve already taken. Unlike right wing dominated states, we are working to expand suffrage and participation instead of constrict it.