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.

Monday, August 2nd, 2021

2021 Washington Top Two voter turnout remains under 20% with one day left to vote

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.

Washington State Top Two Turnout Data, 2021

The Sec­re­tary of State’s office recent­ly intro­duced this data visu­al­iza­tion to show bal­lot return sta­tis­tics, built with Microsoft Pow­er Bi. This is a cap­ture of one of the visu­al­iza­tions. Click to enlarge.

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

2019 (pre-pres­i­den­tial)29.56%
2017 (post-pres­i­den­tial)26.92%
2015 (pre-pres­i­den­tial)24.37%
2013 (post-pres­i­den­tial)25.99%
2011 (pre-pres­i­den­tial)29.54%
2009 (post-pres­i­den­tial)31.04%
2007 (pre-pres­i­den­tial)27.75%
2005 (post-pres­i­den­tial)31.96%

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.

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  1. […] so far in this elec­tion has been pret­ty low. As of yes­ter­day evening statewide turnout stood at 17.36%. That’s below where turnout was at the com­pa­ra­ble point two years ago, on the eve of the […]

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