NPI's Cascadia Advocate

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

Tuesday, November 28th, 2023

2023 is the new worst: Washington again sets a record for low turnout in a general election

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.

On Novem­ber 6th, sum­ma­riz­ing the avail­able bal­lot return sta­tis­tics, I wrote:

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.

On Novem­ber 9th, with sev­er­al bal­lot tal­lies com­plet­ed, I wrote:

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.

Why?

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
  1. Spe­cial elec­tion in February
  2. Spe­cial elec­tion in April
  3. Top Two elec­tion in August
  4. Gen­er­al elec­tion in November

In pres­i­den­tial years: a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry held in March 

What we could have instead
  1. A pri­ma­ry in May or June
  2. Gen­er­al elec­tion in November

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.”

Adjacent posts

  • Enjoyed what you just read? Make a donation


    Thank you for read­ing The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s jour­nal of world, nation­al, and local politics.

    Found­ed in March of 2004, The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate has been help­ing peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond make sense of cur­rent events with rig­or­ous analy­sis and thought-pro­vok­ing com­men­tary for more than fif­teen years. The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate is fund­ed by read­ers like you and trust­ed spon­sors. We don’t run ads or pub­lish con­tent in exchange for money.

    Help us keep The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent and freely avail­able to all by becom­ing a mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute today. Or make a dona­tion to sus­tain our essen­tial research and advo­ca­cy journalism.

    Your con­tri­bu­tion will allow us to con­tin­ue bring­ing you fea­tures like Last Week In Con­gress, live cov­er­age of events like Net­roots Nation or the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, and reviews of books and doc­u­men­tary films.

    Become an NPI mem­ber Make a one-time donation

One Ping

  1. […] week, Wash­ing­ton saw the worst turnout for a gen­er­al elec­tion in state his­to­ry, with just 36.41% of reg­is­tered vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in this year’s local elec­tions. The dread­ful turnout is spurring inter­est in and dis­cus­sion of NPI’s legislation […]

  • NPI’s essential research and advocacy is sponsored by: