Ballot return summary snapshot for the August 2023 Top Two election
Ballot return summary snapshot for the August 2023 Top Two election (King County Elections)

Next Tues­day, King Coun­ty and oth­er coun­ties in Wash­ing­ton State will cer­ti­fy the results of the August 2023 Top Two elec­tion. Although a few addi­tion­al bal­lots will be tab­u­lat­ed between now and then, the vast major­i­ty of bal­lots have already been tal­lied. Statewide, just 1,105 bal­lots remain on hand but unprocessed, accord­ing to the Sec­re­tary of State, and only 100 in King County.

King Coun­ty Elec­tions staff had hoped that coun­ty­wide turnout would sur­pass 35%, but it has stalled out at around 30%, and it looks like it will be below what it was in 2021 and 2019. The day before Elec­tion Day, KUOW even ran a sto­ry with a head­line declar­ing King Coun­ty to be “on pace to reach 35% turnout” in the August Top Two elec­tion. As it turns out, we weren’t on such a trajectory.

But at least King Coun­ty is above the state aver­age, which is a wimpy 28.77%. That’s right: few­er than three in ten vot­ers eli­gi­ble to vote across the state have par­tic­i­pat­ed. Only one coun­ty man­aged the impres­sive feat of get­ting major­i­ty turnout: lit­tle Pacif­ic Coun­ty on the coast, where turnout reached 50.64%. (Pacif­ic had 10,912 vot­ers in the elec­tion; 5,526 returned ballots.)

Here’s a sta­tis­tic that to us is pret­ty pro­found and speaks to our turnout woes: the final coun­ty­wide turnout in the April spe­cial elec­tion to decide whether we should enact a levy to autho­rize walk-in behav­io­r­i­al health cri­sis clin­ics present­ly exceeds  the turnout we’re see­ing in this elec­tion. April’s turnout is beat­ing August’s!

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

April 25th, 2023 spe­cial elec­tion (coun­ty­wide levy on ballot)
Vot­ers in elec­tion: 1,380,765
Bal­lots count­ed: 418,676
Turnout per­cent­age: 30.32%

August 1st, 2023 Top Two elec­tion (coun­ty­wide levy on ballot)
Vot­ers in elec­tion: 1,381,975
Bal­lots count­ed (so far): 416,910
Turnout per­cent­age (so far): 30.17%

This past April 25th spe­cial elec­tion bal­lot was a bit unusu­al in that it had a big coun­ty­wide levy on it rather than just scat­tered school levies and bonds mixed with a few oth­er levies. That made the uni­verse of vot­ers like a Top Two or gen­er­al elec­tion — every King Coun­ty vot­er was sent a ballot.

That means it’s pos­si­ble to com­pare the turnout.

We can’t often do that, due to spe­cial elec­tions hav­ing a small uni­verse of vot­ers. And the com­par­i­son here is sobering.

Let me say it again: A recent spe­cial elec­tion in April drew more of a response from King Coun­ty vot­ers than what’s been tab­u­lat­ed after a whole week of count­ing in a reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tion, even though the reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled one also had its own coun­ty­wide levy. Think about that.

The elec­tion that will soon be cer­ti­fied fea­tured dozens upon dozens of impor­tant con­tests for local office. Accord­ing to the Sec­re­tary of State’s fact sheet, there were 254 con­test­ed posi­tions with 845 can­di­dates in the state a whole.

A num­ber of those were in King Coun­ty. The City of Seat­tle’s sev­en dis­trict-based city coun­cil seats drew a total of forty-five can­di­dates, for exam­ple. Even there, turnout just was­n’t very high. Most vot­ers did not return a ballot.

The pro­nounced decline of vot­er turnout in odd-num­bered years is some­thing we’ve been track­ing and study­ing here at the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute for years. In Wash­ing­ton, it has coin­cid­ed with the imple­men­ta­tion of a num­ber of mea­sures to make vot­ing eas­i­er, includ­ing pre­paid postage for bal­lot return envelopes, more drop box­es, and same-day vot­er registration.

Those mea­sures have low­ered bar­ri­ers to vot­ing and helped fuel near-record par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 2018 midterms and 2020 pres­i­den­tial cycle.

But odd year turnout has remained mired in the dol­drums. Why? Our research and anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests it’s a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors — pri­mar­i­ly elec­tion fatigue, but also a lack of aware­ness and infor­ma­tion. When peo­ple don’t know there’s an elec­tion hap­pen­ing, or know there’s an elec­tion hap­pen­ing but don’t feel they know enough about any of the peo­ple on the bal­lot to cast an informed vote, they are more like­ly to toss their bal­lot pack­et into the recy­cling bin.

Some vot­ers have decid­ed that odd-year elec­tions just don’t mat­ter — per­haps because they are so com­mon­ly referred to as “off years,” which is a term we don’t use here at NPI unless we’re con­demn­ing its usage. NPI staff and board­mem­bers have mem­o­rably been told at doors while can­vass­ing in our capac­i­ties as indi­vid­ual activists that “off year elec­tions don’t mat­ter, so I don’t vote in them.”

No odd year elec­tion in Wash­ing­ton has had major­i­ty turnout in more than decade, and there is no indi­ca­tion that this trend will change.

The con­ver­gence of turnout per­cent­ages seen above indi­cates that we may have final­ly reached rock bot­tom with respect to odd year vot­er turnout.

Mean­ing, we can expect turnout to be sim­i­lar­ly bad in future cycles, but prob­a­bly not a whole lot worse because we’re down to the seg­ment of the elec­torate who vote faith­ful­ly regard­less of what time of year it is (Feb­ru­ary, April, August, Novem­ber) or what’s on the bal­lot, or how much media cov­er­age the elec­tion is get­ting. These are the vot­ers whose default it is to participate.

They get a bal­lot, they can be count­ed upon to send it back.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these folks are only a frac­tion of the total electorate.

To address elec­tion fatigue, we need to change the sys­tem defaults.

Expect­ing mil­lions of peo­ple to alter their entrenched habits is not fea­si­ble, and as I’ve men­tioned before here on The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, no defend­ers of odd year elec­tions have pro­duced a plan for rais­ing odd year turnout.

NPI and vot­ing jus­tice advo­cates, on the oth­er hand, have a plan to address elec­tion fatigue, and it is cen­tered on even-year elec­tions for local positions.

Unlike odd-num­bered years, even-num­bered years are see­ing healthy turnout in Wash­ing­ton. In 2020, King Coun­ty’s turnout sur­passed 85% — more than eight in ten vot­ers returned a bal­lot. The statewide aver­age was sim­i­lar: 84.14%.

By mov­ing key local elec­tions to pres­i­den­tial and midterm years, we can as much as dou­ble the num­ber of vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing (and, if you did­n’t know, the data shows that most peo­ple keep vot­ing down­bal­lot rather than giv­ing up!) Turnout will also become a lot more diverse. The end result will be local gov­ern­ments that are more con­nect­ed to the com­mu­ni­ties they are sup­posed to serve.

Thanks to the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty on the King Coun­ty Coun­cil, King Coun­ty has become the first juris­dic­tion in Wash­ing­ton State to begin imple­ment­ing even year elec­tions for its coun­ty-lev­el positions.

A char­ter amend­ment devel­oped by NPI, spon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Clau­dia Bal­duc­ci, and cospon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Gir­may Zahi­lay was embraced by near­ly sev­en in ten vot­ers last year, demon­strat­ing broad and deep sup­port for even-year elec­tions. Due to the suc­cess of the amend­ment, this year marks the last time that Bal­duc­ci or Zahi­lay will face vot­ers in an odd-num­bered year.

They and the can­di­dates for Asses­sor, Elec­tions Direc­tor, and Coun­ty Coun­cil Dis­tricts #4 and #8 are all run­ning for three-year terms. When they next face the vot­ers, assum­ing they seek new terms, it will be an even-num­bered year: 2026.

Sno­homish and What­com have yet to change their char­ters to do like­wise, but we are com­mit­ted to help­ing make that hap­pen. We also have leg­is­la­tion pend­ing in the state­house that we devel­oped with Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez. Our bill would give cities the free­dom to switch to even-num­bered years as well. It will car­ry over the 2024 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, and we’re look­ing for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to work on it.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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