Washington state has tried to make voting easy, mailing ballots to every registered voter and giving them weeks to send them in. King County and others also have expanded the use of ballot dropboxes. Yet turnout was dismal. Is it voter fatigue?

Share story

Nearly two-thirds of Washington voters sat out the Nov. 7 election, setting a new low mark for turnout.

Just 37.1 percent of the state’s 4.3 million registered voters participated, according to Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office. Results were certified this week.

That beat out the previous record general-election low set in 2015, when turnout reached about 38.5 percent.

Washington state has tried to make voting easy, mailing ballots to every registered voter and giving them weeks to send them in. King County and others also have expanded the use of ballot dropboxes.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Nevertheless, about 2.6 million voters dumped their ballots in the trash or recycling bins instead of taking part in this year’s elections to pick mayors, city councils and school boards across the state.

“I think it continues to be disappointing, and I think it should be a concern for our democracy,” said state Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who chairs the House Committee on State Government, Elections and Information Technology. “I think we get better government when we get more participation.”

Erich Ebel, a spokesman for Wyman, pointed to a lack of statewide races and initiatives this year. “Ideally we would love to see everybody who is registered come out and vote,” he said. “But a lot of that depends on what is on the ballot.”

This fall was the first year since 1985 that Washington had no initiatives or referendums on the ballot, Ebel noted.

Voter interest typically shoots up in presidential-election years and dips in midterms and even further in odd-year elections. In 2008, the state set a record with 84.6 percent turnout when Barack Obama was elected to a first term as president.

Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, said Washington should take steps to further lower barriers to voting — such as providing prepaid postage on ballot envelopes and allowing same-day registration.

Hudgins said Democrats will push legislation advancing those ideas in next year’s legislative session. He also pointed to an ongoing statewide expansion of ballot dropboxes, which research has shown boost turnout.

Villeneuve said the state should also consider trying to reduce “voter fatigue” by reducing the number of elections. “There is no reason we need to have an election every single year,” he said.

Some states avoid holding municipal elections in odd-numbered years, scheduling them instead alongside presidential or midterm elections. Villeneuve suggested Washington could do away with special elections in February and April, for starters.

Ebel said the Secretary of State’s office is open to suggestions, including doing away with some elections, and moving primary election dates to attract more voters.

“There are a number of those suggestions being tossed about. We are reviewing all of those currently,” he said.

Turnout this year was highest in southeast Washington’s sparsely populated Garfield County, where nearly 76 percent of the county’s 1,579 voters participated. It was lowest in Yakima County, which had 28 percent turnout.

King County saw above-average turnout of about 43 percent, spurred by a hotly contested 45th District state Senate race and local contests including Seattle’s high-profile mayoral race.

Turnout in Snohomish County remained under 33 percent; Pierce County came in even lower, at less than 29 percent.

Hudgins said the higher turnout in places like Seattle, which hit 50 percent, shows voters can be motivated by more interesting contests.

“The bright spot is that this isn’t across-the-board demoralized voters. They respond to vigorous campaigns, which are an exchange of ideas and contrasts,” he said.