Returning a ballot in the 2018 midterm election
Returning a ballot in the 2018 midterm election

Vot­er turnout in Wash­ing­ton (PDF) is eas­i­ly out­pac­ing the last midterm cycle four years ago and might even approach his­toric lev­els, if the most recent bal­lot return rates are any indi­ca­tion. As of this evening, 44.9% of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans reg­is­tered to vote had returned their bal­lots. This morn­ing, the num­ber was 40% — so, in the span of just eight hours, it went up by four per­cent. That’s big. On Elec­tion Night four years ago, only 31.32% of bal­lots across Wash­ing­ton State had been returned.

Wash­ing­ton’s turnout has rebound­ed to such a big degree this year that the Ever­green State has eclipsed Ore­gon, the pio­neer of vot­ing-at-home and a state that elects its gov­er­nor in midterm cycles. Only 39.8% of bal­lots had been returned across the Beaver State (PDF) is as of today’s update, where­as Wash­ing­ton is now in the mid-for­ties and like­ly to top 50% by tomor­row night.

Four years ago, Ore­gon had hit 49.9% the day before the election.

As of today, Mult­nom­ah Coun­ty — eas­i­ly Ore­gon’s largest pop­u­la­tion cen­ter and a key source of votes for Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates and pro­gres­sive caus­es — is now ahead of the state aver­age, with 40.1% of bal­lots returned.

The sto­ry is sim­i­lar up in Wash­ing­ton, where King Coun­ty is slight­ly ahead of the state as a whole at 46%. That was­n’t the case four years ago.

For years, Wash­ing­ton has grap­pled with declin­ing turnout across all types of elec­tions. The 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict­ed would be a record break­er, saw less turnout than 2012 or 2008. Turnout in the 2014 midterms came nowhere close to 2010 lev­els, and turnout in the in-between local years got so bad that Wash­ing­ton set two records for the worst turnout in state his­to­ry in the span of just three years.

After last year’s embar­rass­ing­ly awful turnout, the Leg­is­la­ture final­ly got to work remov­ing bar­ri­ers to vot­ing, pass­ing the Access to Democ­ra­cy pack­age, which includes auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, pre­reg­is­tra­tion for six­teen and sev­en­teen year olds, same-day reg­is­tra­tion, and the Vot­ing Rights Act.

King Coun­ty then decid­ed to raise the bar even fur­ther and imple­ment pre­paid postage this year, prompt­ing Wyman and Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee to pool dis­cre­tionary funds from their office bud­gets to ensure the oth­er coun­ties could do like­wise.

Thanks in part to pre­paid postage for bal­lot return envelopes, turnout in the August Top Two elec­tion went up for the first time in years instead of down. Pre­paid postage is now help­ing dri­ve turnout in this gen­er­al election.

We are relieved that action has final­ly been tak­en to arrest and reverse our declin­ing vot­er turnout trend. But while this pos­i­tive momen­tum is wel­come, we can­not take it for grant­ed. Next year is a local elec­tion year with­out a U.S. Sen­ate race or any U.S. House races on the bal­lot, so it will take more work to cat­alyze vot­er turnout.

Turnout is not mere­ly a func­tion of what is on the bal­lot, as Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman has often incor­rect­ly stat­ed. Rather, it is one fac­tor that influ­ences turnout. There are oth­er fac­tors, one of which is bar­ri­ers to vot­ing. Wash­ing­ton has done a good job this year of tear­ing down a lot of those bar­ri­ers. But we could do more.

Wash­ing­ton law­mak­ers can also make vot­ers’ lives sim­pler and reduce vot­er fatigue by chang­ing state law to stream­line the elec­tions we hold.

Instead of hav­ing four elec­tion win­dows in a giv­en year (Feb­ru­ary, April, August, Novem­ber), we should go to two (May or June and Novem­ber). And to sim­pli­fy what’s on the bal­lot, we should end the prac­tice of con­sid­er­ing state-lev­el ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da in odd-num­bered years, since those are local elec­tion years.

These moves would also save mon­ey — par­tic­u­lar­ly for small cash-strapped coun­ties in East­ern Wash­ing­ton — in addi­tion to reduc­ing vot­er fatigue.

Speak­ing of coun­ties in East­ern Wash­ing­ton, Spokane deserves a huge kudos for being the first major coun­ty in the state to sur­pass 50% turnout. The big mile­stone hap­pened this morn­ing. Spokane Coun­ty has­n’t looked back: the coun­ty is now up to 52.7%, which is tru­ly impres­sive. Clark is also doing fair­ly well, with 47.0% in.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic hopes of cap­tur­ing WA-03 and WA-05 are depen­dent on robust turnout in pop­u­lous Clark and Spokane coun­ties, so these high return rates could bode well for Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers Car­olyn Long and Lisa Brown.

The state’s oth­er large coun­ties have some catch­ing up to do. Sno­homish only just reached 40.3%, and Pierce is even fur­ther behind at 36.6%. Thurston is bare­ly ahead of Pierce with 36.8%. As men­tioned, King is ahead of the curve with 46% turnout, and will like­ly pass 50% when it makes its first report tomorrow.

Only one coun­ty in Ore­gon has seen a major­i­ty of its vot­ers turn out yet, and that’s Grant (50.2%). Cur­ry, Wal­lowa, and Deschutes are close behind, with both at or over 48%. All of those coun­ties are fair­ly small — Grant only has 5,325 voters.

The state’s sec­ond largest coun­ty, Lane (home to Eugene), is see­ing about the same turnout as Mult­nom­ah so far… 40%. Oth­er big coun­ties are fur­ther behind: Mar­i­on Coun­ty stands at 36.3% and Wash­ing­ton Coun­ty is at 36.5%.

Mean­while, Clacka­mas Coun­ty — the third of the major coun­ties in the Port­land metro area besides Mult­nom­ah and Wash­ing­ton — has reached 41.6% turnout and is thus the cur­rent turnout leader among the pop­u­lous coun­ties in Oregon.

Unlike Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon has par­ty reg­is­tra­tion, so elec­tions offi­cials down there also break out their turnout sta­tis­tics by par­ty. 49.3% of eli­gi­ble Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers have returned bal­lots so far, and 49% of Repub­li­can vot­ers have done like­wise. 40.1% of inde­pen­dent vot­ers, mean­while, have returned ballots.

Turnout among non­af­fil­i­at­ed Ore­gon vot­ers is a measly 22.1%, while turnout for minor par­ty vot­ers ranges from 22.5% (Work­ing Fam­i­lies) to 38.7% (Pacif­ic Green), with the Lib­er­tar­i­ans and oth­ers in between.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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