Washington is on pace to break its all-time voter turnout record, elections officials say, with ballots pouring in through the mail and drop boxes at an unprecedented pace.
As of Saturday evening, nearly 3.3 million people had returned their ballots — already surpassing the number that had voted by Election Day in 2016.
That put early turnout at 67.6%, and with hundreds of thousands more ballots expected in the coming days, top elections officials predict the previous state record of 84.6% set in 2008 is likely to fall.
“Oh absolutely,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman. “I do think we are going to probably be near 90%.”
King County Elections Director Julie Wise agreed — enthusiastically. “After 20 years in this industry I have never seen anything like this. I am floating at this point. I am very, very, very excited,” she said.
Ballots must be postmarked or deposited in official elections office drop boxes by 8 p.m. Tuesday. Wyman advises late voters to use drop boxes as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute rush.
The intense voter interest, fueled by President Donald Trump’s contentious reelection battle with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, mirrors the national picture.
At least 93 million people nationally have voted in the 2020 general election, already reaching nearly 68% of the number of votes cast in the 2016 general election, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a national vote-tracking website maintained by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many states have followed Washington’s years-long example and made voting easier by expanding vote-by-mail options. Republicans have sued to block such measures in key swing states.
The early turnout so far has favored Democrats over Republicans, leaders and analysts from both parties say.
Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party, said early votes are trending Democratic, but he expects Republicans to make up ground.
“We expect a lot of Republican ballots coming in this weekend and on Election Day. I would anticipate whatever numbers we see Tuesday night would move in the Republican direction in later counts,” he said.
Friday Guilbert, data director for the state Democratic Party, agreed that Democrats have outpaced Republicans in early voting. But she cautioned the party isn’t resting on that lead — or even counting on turnout setting a record.
“We want to be cautious about people getting so excited about the early vote information that they lose their sense of urgency,” Guilbert said. “When Democrats vote we win. Get your ballot in.”
Don Skillman, co-founder of Voter Science, a Bellevue political data and consulting firm that has worked with GOP candidates, said there are also warning signs for Washington Republicans when it comes to new voter registrations.
An analysis by the firm shows a burst of voters in Democratic leaning congressional districts. For example, more than 26,000 voters newly registered this year had already cast ballots in the Seattle-area’s 7th Congressional District as of Thursday, compared with about 13,000 in the conservative 4th District of Central Washington.
Those registration trends could hurt a GOP already at a disadvantage in a Democratic leaning state, and cut against the notion of any stealth “red wave” in the offing that could benefit candidates like Culp.
“While a silent majority or red wave has been promised in the governor’s race, practical indications of this would be reflected in the voter registration totals statewide,” Skillman said. “Ultimately, the numbers simply do not support this at the state or congressional levels.”
The registration figures will continue to shift, however, as people are allowed to register to vote and fill out a ballot right through Election Day.
In the Democratic stronghold of King County, 70% of voters (nearly 1 million) already have sent in ballots, accounting for nearly one-third of all the votes across the state. Turnout in Seattle was even higher, running at 76% as of Saturday.
In Snohomish County, turnout has reached 67%; in Pierce County it’s at 64%; and in Spokane County 67%.
Jefferson County, on the Olympic Peninsula, has reported the highest turnout so far at nearly 78%. The lowest turnout — 58% — has been in Adams County, in Eastern Washington.
While the youth vote gets hyped every four years, so far, voting has been dominated by older people. As of Thursday, nearly 890,000 voters 65 or older had sent in ballots, compared with 490,000 for persons age 18-35, according to a Voter Science analysis.
The early vote surge in some areas was juiced by some counties sending out ballots earlier than in past years. Thurston County mailed ballots six days earlier compared with 2016, said Mary Hall, the county auditor.
Hall said state law sets a deadline for when ballots must be sent, but nothing prohibits counties from mailing them earlier. Thurston County’s turnout was at 67% as of Friday, and Hall said she expects it to reach a record.
To smooth voting amid coronavirus public health restrictions, counties including Thurston have made it easier to register and vote with drive-through options.
“That way voters don’t even have to get out of their cars. Picture a fast-food restaurant. You stop at one place and place your order, you drive to the next place and pick up your ballot,” Hall said.
The U.S. Postal Service has come under intense scrutiny as more states rely on vote-by-mail, with Democrats raising alarms over changes to mail service.
But Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell said Friday that 95% of election mail across the nation has been delivered according to First Class standards.
Purcell’s remarks came in a federal court hearing to address questions about potential mail slowdowns in regions of two battleground states — Michigan and Wisconsin — but no issues were raised regarding Washington.
Local and state elections officials have said they’re confident the postal service will deliver mail in a timely manner here.
A spokesperson for the American Postal Workers Union said the organization has had hundreds of people monitoring election mail across the country to look for delivery issues — and hasn’t found major problems.
“As far as ballots, they are being separated out, they’re not being left behind and they’re being expedited,” said the spokesperson.
In addition, despite reports of potential foreign or hacker interference in the 2020 election, or efforts to steal votes, officials said so far there have been no such problems in Washington.
One ballot box in West Seattle was reportedly defiled by an unknown person who jammed a container with feces into the box. But Wise said no ballots were affected.
Wise said there have been no other problems and noted efforts to improve lighting around ballot boxes, and the hiring of plain-clothed security patrols.
“We haven’t seen issues out there,” said Wise. “We’re of course working with security experts, but we have no known threats.”
Staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.