Nearly two weeks remain before votes are counted in Washington’s March 10 presidential primary, and the Democratic race remains fluid, with the possibility of struggling candidates dropping out in the coming days.
But many Washingtonians are not waiting to see whether the field narrows.
About 420,000 people had already sent in their ballots as of Wednesday afternoon — 9.4% of registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s office. In King County, more than 92,000 ballots are in, or about 7% of voters.
Ballots were mailed to voters last week.
The contested Democratic presidential race, with 13 candidates on the ballot, has drawn more interest so far, with 220,000 votes cast, compared with about 185,000 votes for the Republican ballot, which only has President Donald Trump listed.
Leaders of both parties are downplaying expectations for their turnout.
Will Casey, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said “we’re not measuring our performance against one specific candidate, who is the President.” He said the party also is taking no position on whether voters should cast ballots early or wait until after Super Tuesday — March 3 — when a dozen states vote, possibly altering the prospects of the primary field.
In a statement, Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he expects Democratic turnout to be higher.
“With the Republican race already decided and only one candidate on the ballot, we have low expectations for turnout on our side. It would be a strong show of support if President Trump exceeded his 2016 primary vote total of 455,000 considering he is unopposed this time,” he said.
While Washington has had a presidential primary since 1992, it has taken on new significance this year, with both parties abiding by its results for the first time. Up until this year, Democrats had clung to caucuses to award delegates to presidential candidates, while Republicans had sometimes split delegates based on both caucuses and the primary.
The presidential primary is the only election in which Washington voters have to choose a party in order to have ballots count, by signing partisan declarations on the ballot envelope. A voter’s party preference in the primary is considered public and is made available online by the Secretary of State’s office to anyone who can download a compressed data file and manage a spreadsheet, such as Microsoft Excel.
The partisan declaration requirement has aggravated many voters and led to a flood of complaints to the Secretary of State’s office and county election administrators. In many states voters register as members of a political party, and that information is public, but Washington voters have an independent streak and have long resisted partisan registration and closed primaries.
About 13,000 voters so far have sent in ballots without signing either the Democratic or Republican declaration, which would invalidate their votes. County elections officials plan to contact voters who did not sign those declarations to give them a chance to correct the problem.
State Democrats this week criticized Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, for making partisan declaration information available, saying the state law governing the primary does not explicitly call for the data to be shared with anyone except the major political parties.
Assistant Secretary of State Mark Neary dismissed that complaint, noting the state Public Records Act makes government information public by default unless a specific exemption exists in state law. The records act, created by a voter initiative in 1972, states the law “shall be liberally construed” to promote disclosure of public records.
“We don’t have the ability to keep it private,” Neary said.
Wyman, who is running for reelection this year, announced this week she will not vote in the primary to protest the lack of an “unaffiliated” ballot option, which had been available in some past primaries, even though the parties had disregarded those results.
State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski mocked Wyman’s stance in a statement Tuesday, saying the Republican “can’t hide from her affiliation with a president who separates families and locks children in cages simply by not voting.”