Yesterday evening, Washington State’s thirty-nine counties finished certifying the results of the 2021 general election, which began in September with the mailing of ballots to military and overseas voters and is now complete after a three-week counting period. There were 4,815,263 voters in the election and 1,896,481 ballots were returned, for a total statewide turnout of 39.38%.
Fewer than four in ten voters voted for just the third time in a statewide general election, going back to when recordkeeping began. The turnout we just saw is the third worst general election turnout in state history, behind only 2017 and 2015.
Low participation is a long-running trend that goes back almost a decade. 2013 and 2019 also saw poor turnout and rank among the top ten all time worst general election turnouts in state history. The last odd year election to have majority turnout was ten years ago, in 2011, when 52.95% turned out to vote.
The table below shows all odd year turnouts going back to 1973, when Washington began holding state-level elections in odd numbered years. As we can see, we’re in a slump that stretches back several local election cycles. While even numbered year turnouts have been healthy — 2018 and 2020 saw higher than usual turnouts — odd numbered years have been consistently bad.
Turnout was of course not uniform throughout the state, as we can see from the county by county numbers. Twenty-two counties had turnouts higher than the state as a whole. Seventeen counties had turnouts that were worse.
|County||Registered Voters||Ballots Counted||Turnout (%)|
Some small counties achieved majority turnouts: Columbia, San Juan, Wahkiakum, and Garfield. And some small to medium sized counties achieved near-majority turnouts: Island, Whatcom, Jefferson, and Clallam.
King County was in the middle of the pack, with 43.41% turnout overall, coming in ahead of its two neighbors Pierce and Snohomish.
Pierce’s turnout was the third-worst in the state, with just 32.25%.
That’s not even a third.
Snohomish managed just 35.92%.
Yakima County had the second worst turnout at 32.07%, and Franklin County, which includes part of the Tri-Cities, saw the worst turnout of all: 27.82%.
Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, and Clark are the most populous counties in the state aside from King County. They all had turnouts worse than the state as a whole, which helps explain why we couldn’t crack forty percent this year.
If you go back to the statewide chart above, you’ll notice that there has never been such a prolonged stretch of bad turnout in odd-numbered years that is comparable to the slump we’re in now.
There were some bad turnouts in the 1980s — 1985 and 1987 are among the top ten worst turnouts — but the eighties simply don’t dominate the top of the chart like the teens (which are highlighted) do.
There is no reason to think 2023 or 2025 will be much different.
Over the course of a decade, regardless of what has been on the ballot, turnout has been lousy. And that’s despite the removal of barriers to voting. Postage is now prepaid on ballot return envelopes, there are more drop boxes, and it is now possible to update one’s registration right up until the deadline to vote. Even-numbered year turnout since those reforms is up, but odd year turnout is not.
The status quo simply isn’t working for Washington. It’s wonderful that we have been able to eliminate barriers for voting and improve ballot access.
But now we really, really need to tackle election fatigue.
Phasing out odd year elections will enable us to elect local positions at the same time as federal and state positions, simplifying our voting obligations, saving money, and giving people more of a break in between elections.
The evidence shows that when local positions are voted on in even numbered years, a lot more people participate, which is a really, really good thing. We should want robust turnout for county council and executive elections, mayoral elections, city council elections, school board elections, and so on. Local elections are just as important as elections for federal and state-level office.
Most counties in Washington already elect county-level offices in even-numbered years because that’s the default for code counties.
Charter counties get a choice, and most (King, Snohomish, Whatcom, etc.) have chosen to hold their elections in odd-numbered years. Pierce is the big exception: it elects county-level positions in even-numbered years. And because it does, turnout for its county positions is paradoxically better than King County’s turnout.
For example, here’s King County Executive versus Pierce County Executive:
King County Executive, 2021
Total Votes for Executive: 572,911
Countywide turnout: 43.41% (607,869 votes)
Pierce County Executive, 2020
Total votes for Executive: 439,785
Countywide turnout: 82.26% (467,072 votes)
If King County had voted on its next Executive last year instead of this year, hundreds of thousands more voters would have weighed in. For comparison, King County turnout was 85.35% in 2020, and over 1.1 million votes were cast on each of a set of seven charter amendments submitted by the county to voters.
That’s approximately double the number of voters who chose between Dow Constantine and Joe Nguyen to be the next county executive this month.
And if we look at this year’s Port races in Pierce County, we can see an even more dramatic difference. 467,072 Pierce County voters participated in last year’s presidential election in total, and most of those voters cast a vote for Executive.
But in this year’s Port of Tacoma races — which are countywide — fewer than 170,000 voters participated. The difference between eighty-two percent and thirty-two percent is fifty. That is a huge, huge, huge number!
As Shoreline City Councilmember Chris Roberts has argued in this space, it is an undisputed fact that more people participate in choosing who their local officials are when those officials are chosen in even-numbered years.
So let’s make a change. Let’s phase out odd year elections.
Yes, this will mean longer ballots. But voters have made it clear they would prefer that to continuing to hold elections for important local positions in odd years.