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, August 12th, 2020

Washington’s 2020 Top Two turnout is the highest ever; ballots still being counted

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:

Washington State Top Two Election Turnout: 2008-2018

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Even though the top two has gen­er­al­ly worked well for Democ­rats in this state, I think it should be done away with. I think a Democ­ra­cy is about choic­es. I think that all sides should have a place at the table and that Par­ties should choose who will rep­re­sent them in Novem­ber.

    # by Mike Barer :: August 12th, 2020 at 8:10 PM
    • We agree!

      # by Andrew Villeneuve :: August 12th, 2020 at 8:32 PM