For the third time in eight years, Washington has sadly set a new record for the lowest statewide turnout ever recorded in a general election.
Today was the deadline for counties to certify their returns in the November 2023 general election, and all counties have now submitted their final tallies up to the Secretary of State. Statewide turnout will pass into the history books at 36.41% for this year. That’s the lowest Washington has seen since recordkeeping began.
The previous low record was set in 2017, when turnout was 37.10%.
Before that, the record low was 38.45%, set in 2015.
Here are a few more sobering data points:
- It has been more than a decade since an odd-year election had majority turnout. 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021, and 2023 are all among the ten worst general election voter turnouts in state history.
- Of the last six odd-year election cycles, only two had turnout above forty percent (2013 and 2019). Four of the six had turnout in the thirties, meaning fewer than two in five voters returned a ballot.
- Of Washington’s four biggest counties, only Spokane had turnout exceeding forty percent this year. Pierce, the state’s second largest county, came in at just over thirty percent. King and Snohomish were in the middle of the pack, with percentages mirroring the state’s total.
- No county did as bad as Yakima, which had turnout of just 25.82%.
Our team at NPI tracks voter turnout carefully and closely, and has been sounding the alarm about election fatigue for a long time. Twice this month, our staff has assessed that we might end up exactly where we now find ourselves.
If there isn’t strong Election Day participation from Washington voters, we could end up giving 2017 a run for its money and setting a new record for the worst-ever general election turnout in state history. That would be very sad.
We’re way, way behind 2019, so there’s no doubt this turnout will be one of the worst in state history. 2023 will easily rank above 2019 and 2013 on the worst turnouts of all time list, and probably 2021 too. Can it also surpass 2015, which had the second worst turnout, and 2017, which had the worst ever?
Sadly, we believe it can.
After Election Day, staff with Secretary of State Steve Hobbs’ office figured turnout would land somewhere between 36% — 39%. The final percentage is within that range, but it’s not high enough to surpass 2017’s low mark.
And so here we are, with 2023 turnout the new worst in Washington history.
Turnout by county
This year, Columbia County had the highest turnout and Yakima County had the worst. Columbia was one of just two counties that had majority turnout — the other was Whatcom, which had an election for Executive. In Yakima County, barely more than a quarter of voters returned ballots.
New table of worst voter turnouts in Washington history
Below is the new list of the worst general election voter turnouts in Washington State history, with 2023 taking its place at the top. 2017 is now second worst, 2015 third worst, and 2021 fourth worst.
And a chart
Here’s a chronological visualization of the data above.
Odd-year turnout is trending down, but it’s looked decent or really strong in recent even-numbered years
There was a period when voter turnout in Washington was declining across all types of elections, including those held in even years, but recent even year turnout has been good. 2018 saw almost record high turnout for a midterm cycle, 2020 saw almost record high turnout for a presidential cycle, and 2022 was solid, seeing turnout near both the average and the mean for a midterm cycle.
Meanwhile, turnout in odd years just keeps falling.
Why is Washington’s turnout gotten so bad in odd years?
The recent decline in odd year turnout has coincided with the implementation of reforms making it even easier to vote. Since the end of the 2010s, we have adopted prepaid postage for ballot return envelopes, increased the number of drop boxes, added same-day / in person voter registration, and begun preregistration for youth. Washington, along with Oregon, is considered to be the easiest state in the country to vote in. Ballots come to voters and a three week period is provided to vote. Yet, in odd years, most voters aren’t voting.
Put simply, our research and other data suggests that people simply don’t want to vote up to four times a year every single year. They’re fatigued. Washingtonians want a break from electoral politics in between even year elections.
|The current elections calendar
In presidential years: a presidential primary held in March
|What we could have instead
In presidential years: a presidential primary held in March *and* most local positions contested in even-numbered years, when turnout is higher.
People have also been led to believe that elections held in odd year elections just don’t matter. For example, many in the media continually refer to years like 2023 as “off” years, a term that implies nothing important is on the ballot, when that is absolutely not true. On Election Night, we even heard a reporter working for a national television network call 2023 an “off-off year”. We never use that phrase here at NPI except to criticize it, but we hear it all the time.
Even if a coordinated effort is made to scrap the use of problematic terms like “off year”, and even if significant resources are invested in voter outreach and education, it is unlikely that odd year turnout will ever be comparable to even year turnout. In more than a half century, odd year voter turnout has only exceeded sixty percent once, and that was in 1991, when there was something really big on the ballot: a statewide initiative concerning reproductive rights.
What voters want
Washington voters favor consolidating and simplifying our system of elections. They would rather vote on local positions, especially at the municipal level, at the same time they vote on state and federal ones.
We know because we’ve asked repeatedly in our polling. We have found support for even-year elections statewide, in King County, and in Snohomish County.
At NPI, our research informs our advocacy. We take action in response to what we find. That’s why, in King County last year, we worked with Councilmembers Claudia Balducci and Girmay Zahilay to give voters the opportunity to move elections for twelve King County positions from odd years to even years.
Over 69% of voters said yes to our charter amendment. There were a dozen measures like it on ballots in places across the country. All of them passed.
King County voters in their own words
“I don’t want to get ballots every single year. I vote every time and it takes effort for me to research the candidates. I would like to do this every 2 years.” – Likely 2022 King County voter
“I think it makes sense to have local elections where more people turn out. I think the concerns about local elections being overshadowed by the federal election is somewhat valid but I think most people will understand the importance of local elections and are aware of the issues facing their communities, even if the main topic of discussion is federal elections. Also, I think having federal and local elections at the some time allows for new people and ideas to be implemented at the same time.” – Likely 2022 King County voter
“More voters weighing in and reduce likeliness of lower voter turnout to impact voting results (good candidates being overlooked or other rule changes passing with uninformed voters). I generally think voters take more time and energy to vote during even years. I disagree bigger issues or elections overshadow smaller issues and elections during even years.” – Likely 2022 King County voter
The quotes above are from voters interviewed as part of NPI’s July 2022 survey of likely November 2022 general election voters, conducted for NPI by Change Research. These voters were asked why they planned to vote yes on King County Charter Amendment 1.
This year, we worked with Senator Javier Valdez to introduce legislation giving cities and towns the freedom to move their elections to even-numbered years. Current state law locks our municipalities into low-turnout odd years, when data compiled by our friends at Sightline shows they incur a giant turnout penalty.
Our bill, SB 5723, remains parked in the Senate Rules Committee, and we are urging the Senate to resume consideration of it beginning in January.
There is no question that voters love the idea of even year elections for municipalities, both here and elsewhere. It is hugely popular.
Yet some officials, like Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, are not supportive. They worry about longer ballots in even years and staffing issues.
We believe those are solvable problems. Our bill is limited to a single level of government and doesn’t require a city or town to do make any change. For those that do, the ballot would not significantly increase in length, because no voter lives in more than one city or town and most municipalities stagger terms.
None of the objections that have been raised to moving jurisdictions to even years are convincing to any of the groups of voters we’ve surveyed here in Washington. In fact, after hearing both of the arguments for and against, support for even-year elections goes up. Voters love the idea of a simpler elections system, with local positions contested at times when turnout is much higher and more diverse. It is by far the best solution available to address election fatigue.
Defenders of the status quo in Washington have yet to offer any ideas for meaningfully addressing election fatigue and raising turnout. Since they don’t seem to have any, we urge them to reconsider their opposition to our legislation.
Our door is open: we’re happy to meet with anyone who wants to become better acquainted with the data and learn more about the benefits of even-year elections. The data shows that Washingtonians want to see their elected representatives figure out how to get to “yes” on this, rather than saying “no.”