The primary elections showed Washington’s improvement of voter turnout remains stubbornly gradual.
With ballots still trickling in, the August primary election — with no statewide or federal offices on the ballot — shows roughly 30% of Washington’s registered voters in places that held a primary turned out. That’s the best odd-year primary turnout rate in nearly a decade.
That’s where we are: It’s a high point that less than a third of registered voters participated.
Nationally, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform recommended in 2014 that states should strive for a primary turnout of 30% of all eligible voters by 2020. Last week’s results fall far short of that goal. The difference between eligible voters and registered ones is significant. Washington has about 800,000 unregistered eligible voters, according to a United States Election Project estimate based on census reports.
I’ve voted in seven states, reported on politics in five of them and, as a teenager, supervised an election-day courthouse pollsite during one Mississippi primary. Washington’s system provides a sturdy foundation to build on.
The logistics of voting aren’t the issue — mostly. Washington’s vote-by-mail process, and the largely identical ones in Oregon and Colorado, are national models. A thick Washington voter guide arrives by mail to explain every race, and the ballot goes back to the county postage-free. It’s almost a bonus that the paper ballots federal security experts implore other states to start using are necessarily part of voting by mail.
Ask a voter back East about the fun of standing in line for a ballot, hurriedly trying to smartphone-research obscure municipal candidates and working out how to use county voting machines.
Because online voting would introduce virtually boundless security risks, the convenience of how we participate today might be near the possible peak. Yet, millions of potential voters don’t show up or aren’t registered.
Several new state laws kicked in this summer: automatic voter registration if an interaction with state government establishes citizenship, voter preregistration for high school civics classes and allowing registration all the way up to Election Day. Gov. Jay Inslee called that crop of elections bills “the four horsemen of democracy” when he signed them into law. Despite the apocalyptic language, those aren’t the end-all steps that deserve attention.
Consider the primary we just held. The Washington summer comes with many rituals — hiking, boating, dread of wildfires, Mariners-related ennui — and questioning why the state schedules an election for early August. Little wonder that 30% turnout is a high-water mark.
We can thank the naked political self-interest of the Legislature for the mid-vacation election. Under state law, lawmakers can’t raise campaign funds during legislative sessions, which can run into late spring. Moving the election to an earlier month, in line with what’s done in more than 30 other states including Oregon and Idaho, would mean limiting the incumbents to only a few weeks to collect reelection cash.
In all my time watching governments, I cannot recall seeing tears of pity shed over needy incumbents.
Think about this irony the next time you have to take a vacation from your vacation to research and cast an informed August ballot: a restriction on putting cash in politics resulted in an election calendar drawn to allow more cash in politics.
There’s some evidence that if voters aren’t asked to return ballots during the heart of summer, more will participate. Oregon has had a May primary for more than a century. Since 2000, that state has averaged a 44.6% primary turnout among registered voters. That average Oregon primary turnout rate is better than every Washington primary but one during those same years. The caveat is that Oregon doesn’t restrict political donations during legislative sessions.
A quick analysis of the future offers only a glimmer of hope for change on this. Secretary of State Kim Wyman, for whom I used to work, pushed House and Senate bills for a June primary in 2018. Neither got a floor vote, but one of the co-sponsors, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, Democrat of Tacoma, now leads the House and could put more clout behind the bill.
However, her new speakership requires maintaining support among the Democratic majority’s rank-and-file. A bill that turns up the difficulty on reelection bids seems a poor way to build alliances.
The other two ways the primary schedule ever changes would require the Legislature to end its seasonal restriction on fundraising — and risk being seen as money-hungry — or by citizen initiative to put the change on the ballot. There is no easy route to undoing this particular logjam, but growing voter turnout is a bipartisan civic goal across the country. A Washington that takes rightful pride in its elections process ought to put some political will behind making this obvious fix.