Where did all the primary election voters go?
Perhaps the better question is, where did all the primary election ballots go? Despite predictions by Secretary of State Sam Reed that 46 percent of registered voters would cast ballots, the actual turnout was 38.48 percent.
That means the counties printed and mailed 2,295,744 ballots that did not get back to elections offices and get counted.
Reed was not alone in his unrealized optimism. At least a week before the election, Pierce County elections officials realized that the return rate was not meeting their expectations of 48 percent.
“We kept thinking, this must be wrong. They have to show up,” said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson of the missing ballots. “We kept thinking, we can’t be that wrong.”
They were. While a late surge of ballots came in on and around Election Day, many of them via the expanded network of ballot drop boxes, it was not enough to improve Pierce’s turnout past 36.2 percent.
The turnout was not only disappointing but also possibly record breaking. The average for primary elections in gubernatorial election years is 43 percent. But until this year the lowest over the last four decades came in 1980 (40 percent).
One explanation that doesn’t seem to explain much is the lack of a printed statewide voters pamphlet. If a primary pamphlet encourages voter participation, then it would figure that the four counties that produced their own – King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap – would be turnout leaders. But only Kitsap beat the statewide average; Pierce and Snohomish were both well below.
And only twice has the state published a pamphlet for the primary election – 2000 and 2008. The primary turnout in 2000 was among the lowest in history.
So if a primary voters pamphlet won’t boost turnout, what will? Unfortunately the answer might be more change. In the past decade, voters have absorbed three different primary formats and three different primary dates. A court challenge ended the old blanket primary, which the Legislature replaced with the pick-a-party primary, which a voter initiative replaced with the top-two primary.
And in response to federal requirements ensuring that overseas voters – especially those in the military – get general election ballots in time, the primary date was moved. It once was held on the third Tuesday in September, which was replaced by the third Tuesday in August, which was replaced by the first Tuesday in August.
Turnout has suffered with each date change. Pierce County’s participation for the 2008 primary held the third Tuesday of August was 40.6 percent. The last primary held in September (2004) brought in 43.8 percent of voters.
Meanwhile, statewide primary turnout has fallen from 45.14 percent in 2004 to 42.6 percent in 2008 to 38.5 percent this year.
Policymakers’ two choices: Leave the current date in place and hope voters get used to it, or try another date.
King County Auditor Sherril Huff, who predicted a 52 percent turnout but saw just 38.9 percent, thinks June is a better time.
“I think that is a conversation that needs to take place,” Huff said. “More voters are likely to be attentive in that time period.”
Anderson said county auditors pushed for a June primary but were not successful. August combines vacations and great weather, neither of which is helpful for turnout.
“My friends and neighbors said things like ‘We just got back into town’ and they had to hurry up,” Anderson said of the early August primary. But she doubts auditors would push for a change next legislative session, perhaps waiting until a new secretary of state settles in.
“Voters have been through a lot of change and have adapted well,” Anderson said. “It would be good to give them some continuity.”
Among the finalists for the state’s elections chief, Republican Kim Wyman, Thurston County’s auditor, has supported a June date in the past and said it should be talked about again as a way to help voter participation.
Democrat Kathleen Drew said there are pros and cons to each date and said it is “worthy of a conversation.” But she too worries about more change for voters who have seen a lot already.
Perhaps. But elections officials who measure themselves by their turnout percentage are likely to favor anything that will boost participation.