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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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