Ballot return statistics for the 2023 general election by county
Ballot return statistics for the 2023 general election by county (PowerBi visualization by the Secretary of State's office, captured November 8th, 2023)

Are we about to set yet anoth­er new record for the worst gen­er­al elec­tion vot­er turnout in Wash­ing­ton State his­to­ry? It unfor­tu­nate­ly looks like the answer is like­ly to be yes, based on an analy­sis by our team at NPI of the lat­est bal­lot return sta­tis­tics pub­lished by the Sec­re­tary of State’s office yes­ter­day evening.

With Elec­tion Day hav­ing come and gone, the Sec­re­tary of State’s data shows that 32.62% of bal­lots have been returned as of one day after the elec­tion. That’s not even a third of the elec­torate. And only 24.71% of the bal­lots sent to Wash­ing­ton’s more than 4.8 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers have been counted.

The turnout per­cent­age is going to rise, because more bal­lots returned through the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice are mak­ing their way to coun­ty elec­tions offices across Wash­ing­ton. But there’s a real risk we set a new low record for turnout. Elec­tion Day par­tic­i­pa­tion appears to have been unusu­al­ly low this year.

At this point in 2019, the last com­pa­ra­ble elec­tion four years ago, which had the eighth worst turnout in state his­to­ry, the per­cent­age of returned bal­lots was 40.95%, as you can see from the Sec­re­tary of State’s help­ful com­par­a­tive chart in Pow­er Bi, an inter­ac­tive tool they use for pre­sent­ing bal­lot return statistics:

Ballot return statistics for the 2023 general election compared to 2019
Bal­lot return sta­tis­tics for the 2023 gen­er­al elec­tion com­pared to 2019 (Power­Bi visu­al­iza­tion by the Sec­re­tary of State’s office, cap­tured Novem­ber 8th, 2023)

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.

To get a bet­ter sense of the tra­jec­to­ry we are on and how it com­pares to six years ago, we went into our archives and exam­ined all of our snap­shots of data pub­lished by the Sec­re­tary of State from 2017.

You can see below the turnout per­cent­ages through each day of count­ing in the table below. These are the per­cent­ages of tal­lied — not returned — bal­lots. The esti­mat­ed num­ber of bal­lots remain­ing to be processed is also shown.

We are two days into the 2023 count; here are the num­bers for this year:

On the first day of count­ing in 2017, 22.29% of reg­is­tered vot­ers had had their bal­lots count­ed. This year, only 21.35% had. On the sec­ond day of count­ing in 2017, par­tic­i­pa­tion rose to 25.91%; this year, on the sec­ond day of count­ing, it was 24.71%. An esti­mat­ed 302,626 bal­lots remain to be processed.

If they all were to get count­ed, that would take turnout up to about 30.97%.

That’s not the end of the sto­ry, though.

Remem­ber, the Sec­re­tary of State is report­ing that 32.62% of bal­lots have been returned as of yes­ter­day. Not all returned bal­lots get count­ed because some have issues — like the sig­na­ture does­n’t match. Present­ly, in this elec­tion, there are 13,711 chal­lenged bal­lots. 8,850 have a sig­na­ture mis­match, 4,795 are unsigned, and twen­ty-five have no sig­na­ture on file (which is odd).

30.87% of bal­lots have been accept­ed; while 1.19% have been challenged.

Today and tomor­row, the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice is expect­ed to deliv­er the bulk of the remain­ing bal­lots that were mailed by in-state vot­ers in this elec­tion before the Tues­day dead­line arrived. Then, deliv­er­ies will slow to a trickle.

For turnout to sur­pass 2017, we’d need about 1.79 mil­lion vot­ers to par­tic­i­pate at a min­i­mum. We have 4,830,175 reg­is­tered vot­ers in this elec­tion and 37.11% of that elec­torate would be about 1,792,477. Again, 1,193,489 bal­lots have been count­ed and there are an esti­mat­ed 302,626 bal­lots on hand for processing.

If all are count­ed, we get up to 1,496,115 reg­is­tered vot­ers voting.

Are there anoth­er three hun­dred thou­sand or so bal­lots out there mak­ing their way to coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials that aren’t includ­ed in the return fig­ure yet?

It seems unlikely.

Here are the Day Two esti­mat­ed bal­lots to be processed num­bers for all recent odd-year elec­tions. You can see that in both 2021 and 2019, there were a lot more bal­lots await­ing pro­cess­ing on the sec­ond day than this year.

  • 2023 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 302,626
  • 2021 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 512,130
  • 2019 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 623,814
  • 2017 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 258,894
  • 2015 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 283,001
  • 2013 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 422,157

And here are some recent even years for addi­tion­al comparison:

  • 2022 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 745,330
  • 2020 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 409,826
  • 2018 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 723,438
  • 2016 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 791,555
  • 2014 Day 2 Esti­mat­ed Bal­lots to Process: 501,376

Bal­lot pro­cess­ing oper­a­tions in sev­er­al major coun­ties were sig­nif­i­cant­ly dis­rupt­ed yes­ter­day after an unknown bad actor or actors sent envelopes con­tain­ing bak­ing soda and traces of fen­tanyl to coun­ty elec­tions offices. The sub­se­quent facil­i­ty evac­u­a­tions and law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions slowed down oper­a­tions in King, Pierce, Spokane, and Skag­it coun­ties. Spokane opt­ed not to run a tabulation.

By the end of tomor­row, we should have much more data to work with that will bet­ter illu­mi­nate our tra­jec­to­ry. We’ll keep a close eye on the turnout data and bring you fur­ther updates and analy­sis through­out the vote count­ing period.

What can be done about this?

At NPI, we’ve been sound­ing the alarm for years about elec­tion fatigue. It is a real and grow­ing prob­lem in Wash­ing­ton and else­where in the Unit­ed States. We’ve done great work here and in Ore­gon to make vot­ing easy, and that work has helped increase turnout in even-num­bered years. But in odd-num­bered years, most vot­ers are not turn­ing out. The trend looks real­ly, real­ly bad.

If we want Wash­ing­ton State’s local offi­cials to be cho­sen by the many rather than a few, then we need to act. Most coun­ties are already hold­ing their reg­u­lar elec­tions in even years, but cities can­not. A state law dat­ing back to the 1960s cur­rent­ly locks all Wash­ing­ton munic­i­pal­i­ties into odd years — they have no choice but to hold their reg­u­lar elec­tions for may­or, city attor­ney, city coun­cil, and oth­er offices in years when the elec­torate is small­er, old­er, rich­er, and whiter.

NPI has devel­oped leg­is­la­tion to allow cities and towns to regain the free­dom to choose their elec­tion tim­ing. Sen­ate Bill 5723, prime spon­sored by our cham­pi­on Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez, is cur­rent­ly parked in Sen­ate Rules. It will be our top pri­or­i­ty for the 2024 leg­isla­tive ses­sion. If you are inter­est­ed in help­ing get it passed, please reach out. You can text us at 425–310-2785.

More back­ground about the bill is avail­able at and our friends at Sight­line have just pub­lished a huge­ly use­ful deep dive that looks at the vot­er turnout penal­ty Wash­ing­ton cities and towns are pay­ing due to being forced to hold their elec­tions in odd-num­bered years. Be sure to check that out here.

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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