Last year, in both the August Top Two and November general elections, huge numbers of Washingtonians returned ballots, helping make the 2020 general election cycle one for the record books. Even the state’s spring presidential primary, held during the early days of the pandemic, set a record.
Now, however, with the presidential election behind us, turnout has regressed to the worrisome levels we’ve seen in previous odd-numbered years going back to 2013. With one day left to cast a ballot, voter turnout stands at just 17.36% statewide, with 756,092 ballots returned out of 4,355,758 issued.
The turnout leaders are all small counties: Columbia and Wahkiakum (which each have only a few hundred voters in this election), followed by Jefferson, Pacific, San Juan, Stevens, Klickitat, Pend Oreille, Island, and Whitman. Columbia’s turnout is almost 40%; the others are in the mid-thirties or high twenties.
Of the bigger counties, Kitsap has the best turnout right now, with 23.09% in. Thurston and Whatcom have both gotten over the one-fifth threshold, with 20.68% and 20.46%, respectively. Spokane is just above the state mean at 17.73%, trailed by Snohomish and King, with 16.72% and 16.66% each.
Pierce, meanwhile, is dead last. The county, home to the Tacoma metro area, is the state’s second most populous jurisdiction, with 566,782 voters in the election, but only 65,738 have participated so far… a cringeworthy rate of 11.60%.
Yakima County, which is often last in the state, is several spots further up the list this time, with 15.60%, ahead of Ferry, Clark, and Franklin in addition to Pierce.
Past odd year qualifying elections have seen total turnout under 30%. Of the last eight odd-year Top Two elections, only two saw turnout higher than 30%.
Here’s a table:
Top Two election turnouts: Twenty-first century odd years
Turnout data for September 2001 and September 2003 is unfortunately not readily available, not even in the Secretary of State’s published archives
The above are statewide numbers.
King County Elections projected that 2021 Top Two turnout within the state’s largest county would reach forty percent. As I told KIRO FM, I don’t see us getting there in this election. I would love to be wrong, but that would require a turnout boom tomorrow. We’d have to more than double our return rate in twenty-four hours. Is that possible? Absolutely! But more of us would have to vote.
A lot more.
If, like the NPI team, you’ve returned your ballot, then it’s time to check on family and friends to see if they have returned theirs. Chances are that they haven’t, because fewer than one in five voters has gotten a ballot back to the thirty-seven counties that have offices and measures on the August Top Two ballot.
It is worth noting that even before we had a Top Two, in the days of the old blanket primary held in September, turnout was still pretty lousy in odd-numbered years. That suggests that it’s not the month that matters (e.g. August versus September or another month) but rather, the year.
Far fewer voters engage and participate in odd-numbered years, which is when Washington State law prescribes that cities have their elections (and when home rule counties like King County choose to have their county elections.)
We have fifty years of data to inform our conclusions about voter behavior, since the state’s expanded experiment with odd year elections began in the 1970s.
Turnout varies in even-numbered years too, of course, but it’s consistently above fifty percent in general elections, which is an important threshold.
Last year, general election turnout was an impressive 84.11%, better than almost anywhere else, while August Top Two turnout was 54.44%.
Turnout this year could easily be less than half that.
When turnout is above fifty percent, it means that a majority of people who were registered to vote sent back a ballot. Elections generally do not have a quorum requirement, with the exception of minimum turnout requirements for bond measures, but maybe they should. In a democracy, decisions are supposed to be made by the many, not a few. Yet when hardly anyone votes, the decisions about who governs end up getting made by a very small percentage of the voters.
There’s a simple solution for immediately improving turnout in local elections: move them to even numbered years when state and federal positions are also on the ballot. Most counties actually already hold their county-level elections in even-numbered years — it’s only home rule counties like King, Snohomish, and Whatcom that don’t. As cities and counties are our most important local governments, moving their elections to even numbered years seems like a good starting point, along with phasing out state-level elections in odd-numbered years.