Although the processing and tallying of ballots in Washington State’s 2020 Top Two election has not yet concluded, it’s clear from the returns that have been tabulated to date that this year’s winnowing exercise is the highest turnout Top Two election in history, in addition to comparing favorably against the open primary system and the blanket primary system that came before it.
As of the close of business on Tuesday, August 11th, 2020, a date falling one week after the ballot return deadline, turnout stood at 52.7%, with an estimated 56,137 ballots still to be processed. 55.0% of eligible voters had returned ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s ballot return statistics page.
Those are unheard-of numbers for a Top Two election.
No previous Top Two election in Washington State has seen turnout over fifty percent, not even in presidential years. See for yourself with this chart:
In 2008, the first presidential cycle in which the Top Two was used, and also the first presidential cycle in which the Top Two was held in August (it was previously in September), turnout was 42.6%. In 2012, turnout was 38.48%.
And in 2016, turnout was only 34.88%.
The turnout we’re seeing now dwarfs those previous cycles. It’s also higher than the 2020 presidential primary in March and higher than last year’s general election, when voters considered Initiative 976 and Referendum 88 along with a slew of races at the local level, particularly in major cities like Seattle.
It’s always wonderful to see turnout over fifty percent — it means that a majority of those able to participate returned a ballot, and fulfilled their civic duty.
But what accounts for the incredibly high turnout? Recall that 2008 was an epic presidential cycle too, with history-making presidential tickets and lots of excitement, but the turnout then wasn’t anywhere like what it is now.
A few guesses:
- The pandemic. It’s wreaked havoc on summer traditions, resulting in the cancellation of seasonal vacations as well as festivals like Seafair. With more Washingtonians staying home or closer to home this year, there were fewer activities competing with the Top Two election for voters’ attention.
- The protests. Equity and social justice are on people’s minds. The graphic video depicting the murder of George Floyd, along with the other recent murders of Black people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Manuel Ellis, have inspired people to march and write and speak out for a society in which Black Lives Matter, as well as Indigenous lives.
- Fired up partisans. Each major party’s base is clearly eager for the coming autumn election, which we have been building towards ever since the last one ended. Democratic voters badly want to get rid of the Trump/Pence regime and keep state government science-oriented under Governor Jay Inslee, while Republican voters want the opposite.
- Vote at home. In Washington State, you don’t have to stand in line to vote. Your ballot comes to you and you have three weeks to fill it out and return it, either to a post office or a drop box. Our system is as close to virus-proof as it gets. Washingtonians were able to vote in this election without having to run the risk of exposure to COVID-19, and they took advantage.
To expand a bit on that last point: it’s important to remember that Democratic legislators have spent the last few years working to strengthen vote at home in a number of ways. Laws were passed requiring more drop boxes and prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes, lowering the barrier to returning a ballot.
(In addition, the Legislature enacted automatic voter registration, same day voter registration, and preregistration for young voters, measures that expand the voter rolls as opposed to shrinking them, which Republicans are tying to do elsewhere.)
That work has paid off. People were motivated to vote this summer, and hopefully those who were not previously in the habit of doing so discovered that it’s really not that difficult to fill out a ballot and get it back to elections officials. Washington has made it about as easy as it could be to vote.
Democracy requires participation. The more of us who vote, the better. This American experiment that began several hundred years ago and was expanded with many hard won advances in suffrage can only endure if we vote.
I hope this is just the beginning. I hope to see a new general election turnout record set this November with over 90% participation in all Pacific Northwest states: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. We have never seen 90% participation before. It would be wonderful to see it this year for the first time in our history.