Late surges for progressive candidates in Seattle’s pivotal City Council elections were driven by younger voters who waited until the last minute to turn in their ballots.
The median age for Seattle voters whose ballots were received on and after Election Day was significantly lower than for voters whose ballots arrived earlier, powering socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant and 29-year-old prosecutor Andrew Lewis to come-from-behind victories.
Knowing the procrastinator crowd would be crucial, campaigns poured resources into late-stage canvassing this year, and the results will likely make the strategy even more widespread in the city’s next elections.
“Most people aren’t voting until the last four days, so all our energy is going toward those last four days,” said Michael Charles, a political consultant.
The median age for Seattle voters whose ballots were received by the Friday before the Nov. 5 deadline was 56 years old, an analysis of King County voter data shows. But the median for voters whose ballots were received on Election Day was a much lower 47, and the median for ballots received Nov. 8 was a decidedly millennial 36.
The tens of thousands of ballots returned to drop boxes on Election Day were scanned and marked as received then, though many were not counted until later in the week, according to King County Elections spokeswoman Halei Watkins.
Very young voters, in particular, held onto their ballots. More than two-thirds of the roughly 19,000 voters under 27 who participated had their ballots received on election day or later, rather than in the more than two weeks prior. In contrast, about two-thirds of the approximately 39,000 voters 70 and older returned ballots before election day.
The younger crowd helped Sawant and some other lefty candidates notch wins despite heavy spending for their rivals by business-backed political action committees (PACs). Sawant trailed District 3 challenger Egan Orion by a wide margin on election night but pulled ahead in a 12-point swing.
Later ballots also pushed Lewis past former police chief Jim Pugel in District 7. Pugel led with just over 50% of the vote on election night, but the younger candidate wound up winning with about 53%.
“Young people have a lot going on. They’re working two jobs. They’re busy,” Lewis said. “If something can be put on the back burner until tomorrow, they’ll put it on the back burner until tomorrow, because they have stuff to do to make ends meet.”
When the deadline came, those voters delivered, Lewis said, driving turnout across Seattle above 50%. Significant swings occurred in District 3, District 4 and District 7, which include Seattle’s four-year college campuses: Seattle University, the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, the candidate noted.
“What these districts have in common is very large populations of young people,” said Lewis, who was endorsed by most labor unions and environmental groups.
The trend isn’t new. Younger voters also cast their ballots later in Seattle’s 2015 elections, county data shows. But the city’s electorate this year was altogether younger than in 2015, with a median age of 48, rather than 52.
The intense polarization that characterized the lead-up to the 2019 council elections, with Amazon’s involvement helping to split the Seattle races into slates, may have accentuated the usual swings, as politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren weighed in on the corporate spending, Lewis said.
“Young people are more politically activated than before because of the national scene,” he said.
Charles said some younger voters hang onto their ballots in order to see how the candidates react as their races tighten up.
“With millennials, I think there’s a trend to want more information,” said Charles, who had no clients in the Seattle elections but worked with Metropolitan King County Council winner Girmay Zahilay and Port of Seattle winner Sam Cho.
The phenomenon may be snowballing, Charles said. Seeing that many ballots are being cast at the last minute, campaigns are plowing extra resources into Election Day turnout, causing even more ballots to come in just before the deadline.
“The trend almost starts to exacerbate itself,” Charles said.
Heather Weiner, a political consultant who worked with a union-funded PAC, agreed campaigns are aware of the youthful voter trend — and focus efforts to capitalize on those later votes. “We put that into our strategic bucket,” she said.
Weiner pointed, for example, to intensive canvassing efforts in the neighborhoods around Seattle Pacific University in the four days before to the election.
In Seattle’s District 4, a later-vote surge almost allowed democratic socialist Shaun Scott to overcome a huge deficit against Alex Pedersen. Pedersen was widely considered the favorite, having previously worked as a council aide and penned a newsletter focused on District 4 neighborhood issues, and he initially led Scott with about a whopping 16 points. But he ended up with only about 52% of the vote.
“I’m sure a lot of people thought our race was over,” Scott said in a statement, crediting his near comeback to voters “who typically sit out of local elections.”