Despite new technologies making the process easier than ever, about a third fewer Washington state residents have registered to vote this year compared with the first nine months of 2008. The decline is more pronounced among younger people.
Some gave a sheepish smile, a slight nod or an apologetic shake of the head.
But most often, the University of Washington students flooding past Elise Randall on Monday didn’t bother to look up as she waved a clipboard and loudly offered to help them register to vote on the last day to do so by mail or online.
In two hours standing in the busiest thoroughfare on campus — and directly beneath a statue of George Washington — the graduate student registered two people.
It’s been that kind of year for voter-registration advocates.
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Despite a much-heralded Facebook application and other online technologies making the process easier than ever, about a third fewer Washington residents have registered to vote this year compared with the first nine months of the 2008 presidential-election year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
The decline is especially pronounced among young people, who are the least likely to register.
The slump is nationwide, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, which last month found that the percentage of adults 18 and older who say they are registered to vote is lower than in at least the last four presidential-election years.
It also follows an August primary in Washington state in which only 38.5 percent of registered voters submitted ballots, the lowest in decades for a presidential-election year.
Speculation as to why depends largely on the political persuasion of the speculator: Republicans point to disappointment with President Obama, while Democrats blame a bad economy, the lack of a nomination battle on their side, and an election without the historic significance of fours years ago.
But political insiders of all stripes agree the major candidates appear less interested in attracting new voters than in 2008.
“Voting is like a party,” said Toby Crittenden, executive director of the Washington Bus, which works to engage young people in the political process. “If you throw a party and you don’t invite someone to it, and then they don’t show up, why are you surprised?”
The state voter rolls increased by 135,600 between Jan. 11 and Sept. 26, the earliest and latest dates of voter numbers reported so far this year. That’s less than the 200,200 increase in registered voters over a similar time period four years ago.
Among those ages 18-24, registration grew by 34,129 this year compared with 55,221 in 2008.
Registration statistics are not available in a similar format for 2004 or earlier elections.
The numbers do not include registrations during the run-up to the deadline for online and mail-in forms, which this year was Monday. (New voters still can register in person through Oct. 29 at county elections offices).
Overall, more people in the state are registered to vote than ever before — 3.79 million — in part due to population increases.
But election officials acknowledge that new registrations this year have been slower than in the past.
They’re not sure why.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it vote,” Secretary of State Sam Reed deadpanned.
The 2008 election, of course, attracted a lot of attention. Nationwide, voter turnout edged up by about 1.5 percentage points compared with 2004, and in Washington state, about 3,500 more residents ages 18-24 voted.
The increase has been widely attributed to an effort by then-Sen. Obama, who captured much of the youth vote.
“Normally candidates focus on existing voters, but in 2008 the Obama campaign had a goal to increase voter registration among young people, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans,” said Matt Barreto, a UW political-science professor.
This year, Obama has focused less on registering new voters, which could explain the registration decline, Barreto said.
Republicans focus on a different Obama-related theory — that young people, inspired by the president’s election, have felt let down.
“Hope and change didn’t turn out the way they thought it would,” said Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, referencing a 2008 Obama slogan.
Paul Bell, an Obama spokesman in Washington state, said young voters are excited about the president’s moves to increase college financial aid and to let them stay on their parent’s health-care plans longer. He pointed to survey data showing they heavily favor Obama over his opponent, Mitt Romney.
Another Democrat, Benton Strong, said it’s difficult to draw comparisons with 2008 because that year included a fierce primary battle between an African-American candidate, Obama, and a female candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“You’re talking about a historic election,” said Strong, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. “You’re talking about probably the biggest election in the lifetime of most of the people that we know.”
One explanation for the low numbers this year, Strong and others said, is the deep recession that forced many people to move, which could have affected their registrations.
To others, the drop-off can be explained by an uneventful campaign full of negative advertising. “This election season has been kind of a turnoff,” said Rick Chisa, political director for the Public School Employees of Washington union.
“You Otter Vote”
On Monday, volunteers and staffers from the Washington Bus and other voter-outreach groups sought to turn young voters on to the election.
They gathered at UW’s Red Square and on other campuses, wearing bright blue T-shirts with a sketch of an otter and the words “You Otter Vote.” Organizers said they registered about 150 people at the UW event.
The groups plan to work over the next month to inform residents about how they can register in person.
Randall, the student largely unsuccessful with her registration clipboard, said it’s important to remind people of their civic duty even if the response is sometimes disappointing.
“It’s really easy for people to forget how important this is,” said Randall, reflecting later in the day. “It’s really easy for people to forget that their voice really matters.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.