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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

Washington’s 2021 general election certified; turnout is the third-worst in state history

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.

Coun­tyReg­is­tered VotersBal­lots CountedTurnout (%)
San Juan14,5678,34957.31%
Wal­la Walla37,35416,60644.46%
Pend Oreille10,6214,17339.29%
Grays Har­bor49,40418,17936.8%

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.

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