Washington State’s just-concluded 2020 presidential primary turned out not only to be a groundbreaking event, but a record-setting one, too.
For the first time in state history, both major political parties pledged to allocate one hundred percent of their national convention delegates using the results. And voters responded enthusiastically. As of Friday, the final day of counting, 49.56% of voters had returned a ballot, with 2,256,488 ballots counted.
Never before has a presidential primary attracted that kind of turnout.
In 2016, turnout was just 34.78%. In 2008, the year that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vied for the Democratic nomination, turnout in the meaningless primary was 41.88% despite being held in February when the race was still very fluid.
In 2000, turnout was 42.60%.
No presidential primary was held in 2004 or 2012 because the Legislature opted to cancel it, so we cannot compare this year to those years.
As mentioned above, this was the first primary in which both parties pledged to utilize the results to allocate their national convention delegates.
That seems to have made all the difference with respect to turnout.
People understood that the primary mattered, that the results would count, that returning a ballot would help influence who got nominated (well, at least on the Democratic side… the Washington State Republican Party made sure Donald Trump’s name was the only name on the Republican ballot).
And consider this: Even though voters were required to declare a party affiliation (Democratic or Republican) in order to have a returned ballot count, more Washingtonians checked the box and participated in the primary than voted in last year’s November general election, when there was an initiative, referendum, and constitutional amendment on the ballot along with thousands of local positions.
While it’s not possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between a nominating event and an actual election because they are different things, I still think it’s telling that 221,087 more ballots were cast in a nominating event for President of the United States than were cast at an election a few months earlier where mayors, city and county councilmembers, school board members, port commissioners and more were being elected, mainly for four year terms.
We know turnout is at its highest in a presidential year general election. No other type of election comes close. So imagine how many more voters would participate in deciding who their local leaders were if that is when we had our local elections.
NPI strongly supports phasing out odd-numbered year elections so that we can reduce voter fatigue, save money, improve turnout in local elections, and ensure more voters are involved in deciding the fate of state-level ballot measures.
Half of the ten lowest turnout general elections in Washington State history have all been in the past two decades, which is troubling.
At least we’re going in the other direction with our presidential primary.
Washington’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kim Wyman — who, as documented here, has a history of making overly optimistic turnout predictions — originally predicted turnout of fifty percent in Washington’s presidential primary, which was well beyond what many county auditors were forecasting.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman told a gathering of newspaper editors and publishers last week that she is expecting about fifty percent turnout for the presidential primary.
If Wyman had stuck to her fifty percent prediction, she would have been on the money for once. But, amusingly, she didn’t do that.
Instead, she revised her prediction upwards:
Secretary of State Kim Wyman told us today she expects turnout to reach fifty-five to sixty percent by the time the election is certified.
– Anchor David Rose, Q13 Fox, March 9th evening news broadcast
The next day, right wing radio host Jason Rantz (a big Wyman fan) characterized her prediction as “up to sixty” as opposed to “fifty-five to sixty”:
Kim Wyman, Secretary of State, believes it’s going to get up to sixty because of how many of the votes that are going to come in today.
– KTTH host Jason Rantz, 5:11 PM on Tuesday, March 10th
Our research has found Wyman’s past predictions have been overly optimistic by at least five percentage points and sometimes as much as ten or more, so her revised prediction fits that pattern. Should’ve stuck with the original prediction!
King County Elections, on the other hand, was way off. The state’s largest jurisdiction conservatively estimated forty percent turnout.
Instead, turnout in King County was 53.57%. Even though their prediction was not in the ballpark, Elections Director Julie Wise is no doubt thrilled to see more than half of the ballots her team mailed out come back for counting.
|Counties with the best turnout||Counties with the worst turnout|
|Best: Jefferson (65.64%)||Worst: Yakima (39.45%)|
|Second best: San Juan (64.95%)||Second-worst: Adams (40.71%)|
|Third-best: Clallam (56.97%)||Third-worst: Franklin (40.79%)|
|Fourth-best: Wahkiakum (56.54%)||Fourth-worst: Benton (43.15%)|
|Fifth-best: Columbia (56.27%)||Fifth-worst: Pierce (44.70%)|
“Aside from running an accessible, secure, and fair election, my mission was to give voters a greater voice in the nomination process for our nation’s next president. This year’s presidential primary turnout shows we accomplished just that.”
Infuriatingly, Wyman plans to continue advocating that a “straw poll” option be added to the presidential primary ballot, which would make the primary completely unusable by the Washington State Democratic Party.
Here’s an idea: Let’s not do that. Let’s not go backwards. Let’s focus on improving Washington State’s presidential primary for 2024, not ruining it.