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.

Monday, November 6th, 2023

2023 Washington State general election on track to join the worst turnouts of all time

By the end of this month, it appears that there will be a new entry in the list of the top ten worst gen­er­al elec­tion vot­er turnouts in Wash­ing­ton State his­to­ry. It will belong to this year’s gen­er­al elec­tion, which is sad­ly on track to have mea­ger turnout, just like the five odd-year cycles that pre­ced­ed it (2021, 2019, 2017, 2015, and 2013), which rep­re­sent half of the entries on the cur­rent top ten list.

With twen­ty-four hours left to vote, statewide vot­er turnout cur­rent­ly stands at 19.86%, just shy of twen­ty per­cent. That’s right: more than four fifths of vot­ers have yet to return a bal­lot. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of vot­ers will vote on Elec­tion Day, but per­haps not enough to push vot­er turnout past forty per­cent. Turnout has been under that mark in three out of the last four odd year elections:

  • 2021: 39.38%
  • 2019: 45.19%
  • 2017: 37.10%
  • 2015: 38.45%

As in the past, the cur­rent turnout lead­ers are all tiny rur­al coun­ties: Colum­bia, Garfield, and Wahki­akum top the list with turnout of 39.33%, 39.66%, and 32.94%, respec­tive­ly. After that, it’s Lin­coln, Pacif­ic, and Island; those are the only oth­er coun­ties that have passed the thir­ty per­cent mark.

Of the big­ger coun­ties, Spokane has the high­est turnout at 28%. What­com is close behind at 27.84%. King, Sno­homish, and Pierce (the three biggest) all lag the statewide tal­ly, with 19.02%, 18.50%, and 12.71% each. The Pierce per­cent­age in par­tic­u­lar is absolute­ly dread­ful — it’s the worst in the state. Sec­ond worst is Clark Coun­ty, home to many of the Port­land sub­urbs, with 14.39%.

The fact that all of the big coun­ties are doing so poor­ly does­n’t bode well.

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.

At this point in 2019 (which cur­rent­ly sits in the record books as hav­ing the eighth worst turnout in state his­to­ry), 21.96% of bal­lots had been returned. At cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, turnout was 45.19%; more than fifty per­cent of the 2,035,401
bal­lots cast were returned in the final twen­ty-four hours of voting.

Though Wash­ing­ton is the eas­i­est state in the coun­try to vote in (aside from Ore­gon), vot­er turnout in odd years has been con­sis­tent­ly bad. Most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans sim­ply don’t want to vote up to four times a year every year, which is why it’s impor­tant that we take action to address vot­er fatigue.

In King Coun­ty, thanks to vot­er approval of a char­ter amend­ment devel­oped here at NPI and spon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Clau­dia Bal­duc­ci, vot­ers will be elect­ing six coun­ty posi­tions for the final time in an odd-num­bered year. The offices of King Coun­ty Elec­tions Direc­tor, King Coun­ty Asses­sor, and King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber (2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th Dis­tricts) will next be vot­ed upon in 2026, a midterm cycle, when turnout is expect­ed to be above fifty percent.

NPI has a bill in the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture that would give cities and towns the free­dom to switch their elec­tions to even-num­bered years: Sen­ate Bill 5723. Pas­sage of this leg­is­la­tion would allow munic­i­pal­i­ties that wish to elect their may­ors, city attor­neys, coun­cilmem­bers, and oth­er offi­cers dur­ing years when turnout is high­er and more diverse to do so. Cur­rent state law locks cities and towns into low turnout odd years, which means that a few are choos­ing Wash­ing­ton’s munic­i­pal lead­er­ship rather than the many.

We’re look­ing for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to work on SB 5723. There is no oth­er elec­toral reform avail­able that can as much as dou­ble turnout for local elec­tions while also sig­nif­i­cant­ly diver­si­fy­ing it. And it’s very pop­u­lar with Wash­ing­to­ni­ans. The Leg­is­la­ture will have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to send SB 5723 to Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee when it recon­venes for its next ses­sion in just a few weeks.

In the mean­time: if you’re read­ing this, please vote, and please check with your friends and fam­i­ly to make sure they have vot­ed. It matters!

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