Washington is on pace to set its lowest mark ever for voter turnout in an off-year election.

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Voter turnout in Washington is on pace to set a dismal mark as the lowest ever for an off-year election.

As of Thursday evening, fewer than 38 percent of registered voters had returned ballots for the Nov. 3 election.

If those numbers stand, it’d be the smallest turnout since Washington began holding statewide elections in odd-numbered years in 1973. And it would be the lowest in any election going back to at least 1936, when the state began permanent voter registration, according to Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office.

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The previous low came in 1985, when just over 40 percent of registered voters participated.

While straggler ballots were still being counted, David Ammons, a spokesman for Wyman, acknowledged this year may set a “dubious record.”

Wyman’s office had predicted 46 percent turnout.

The level of civic participation looks even punier by a broader measure, with just 28 percent of the voting-age population sending in ballots.

Interest in elections typically spikes in years with presidential contests. In 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president, the state set a record with 85 percent turnout.

But off-year elections depend on the buzz around statewide initiatives and local races.

“This year, some areas had good local races, but the two statewide initiatives didn’t seem to draw much interest or heavy advertisement,” Ammons said in an email.

Turnout in King County has stayed close to the statewide average. It was higher in Seattle — about 46 percent — as voters chose City Council members in several contested races under a new district system.

Washington also had comparatively meager vote totals last year, with the smallest midterm turnout of the past 36 years. Nationally, the 2014 midterms drew the lowest turnout among eligible voters in seven decades.

While Washington’s all-mail system makes it relatively easy to vote, some groups say mandatory or automatic voter registration is a further step that could boost turnout.

“The United States is one of the only nations in the world, among developed countries, that has a registration process like this,” said Brian Miller, executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that advocates for more voter participation.

Miller pointed to Oregon, which this year approved a first-in-the-nation law that will automatically register all eligible people when they apply for a driver’s license or state identification card, unless they opt out.

Washington has had a “motor-voter” law since 1990 encouraging voter registration at driver’s license offices. But Washington cannot automatically register all drivers because the state does not require proof of legal status when obtaining a license.

While disappointed in the 2015 turnout, Wyman’s office says 2016 should be a different story, with a presidential race, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests and some potentially hot initiatives.

“We fully expect to see voters tuning back in next year, with a turnout likely to top 80 percent,” Ammons said.

Note: This story was corrected on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. An earlier version contained an incorrect date for the Nov. 3 election.