Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Making sense of low-voter-turnout projections

Tuesday is Election Day. And we’re not exactly rocking the vote.

If anything, based on current calculations and the informed guesses of those who track these things for a living, we’re meh-ing the vote.

Are we complacent? Confused? Conflicted over which way to go or which candidate to connect the line for?

Or just procrastinating?

It’s probably a combination of all of the above.

Here’s what we know for certain at this point. The numbers don’t look great. As of Monday, data available from the Pierce County Auditor’s office showed 17.94 percent of ballots had been returned countywide, and of the 106,301 registered voters in Tacoma, just 17,831 — or 16.77 percent — had cast a ballot.

Going back to 2000, the average turnout among Pierce County registered voters in odd-year general elections is approximately 45 percent, according to Nic Van Putten, a political consultant with Progressive Strategies NW. Van Putten says that by the weekend preceding the election just over 46 percent of likely voters have typically already had their ballot counted.

Van Putten crunched the available numbers for me Sunday — something he probably would have done anyway, just for fun. Generally speaking, Van Putten says, turnout in Tacoma is typically just shy of Pierce County’s overall number, and says, “The data is currently suggesting that we’re on track for only 30.43 percent (voter turnout) county-wide.”

Which isn’t awesome.

However, that projection comes with a caveat. Historically, when early turnout looks lousy, a late spike as ballots flow in — some of which don’t get mailed until Election Day — usually brings us closer to average. And vice versa.

“You tend to see a reversion toward the mean closer to Election Day,” Van Putten tells me. “ So when you’re on track for abysmal turnout, there tends to be a surge Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday that brings you somewhat close to normal. … Conversely, when you’re on track for particularly high turnout, there tends to be a drop-off at the end that brings it back down toward average.”

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson says a late voting surge would fit with an “early trend” she’s seen in the last year, where “more voters seem to be waiting for the last possible day to vote.” She attributes this shift to a possible indication that voters are growing “more accustomed to the 24/7 drop boxes.”

For the sake of local democracy, let’s hope that’s the case this year. And that’s what Van Putten expects. “I think that number will probably go up several percent — maybe to around 37 percent, a little closer to the average,” he says.

“Any way you look at it, though, this is still going to be a well-below-average election.”

So what does all of this mean, and what’s behind it?

While turnout in non-presidential election years is always a crapshoot, there’s reason to wonder if this year’s ridiculous Tacoma ballot — which includes the convoluted two-part minimum wage question, the potentially confusing two-part roads package vote, and the comically botched strong mayor proposal — has led to more head-scratching among voters than normal.

In fact, that could be a best-case scenario. If voters are simply being forced to take more time to consider their ballot options — or, perhaps more likely, putting decisions off because it’s all enough to make anyone’s head hurt — turnout may see a boost as we reach the finish line.

But there’s also the question of what a low-turnout election might mean for important questions facing Tacoma voters.

While early turnout for competitive City Council races in District 1 and District 3 reveals trends in line with the historical averages — meaning strong numbers in the North End, and middling numbers in Hilltop, Central Tacoma and in the neighborhoods by the Tacoma Mall — when it comes to other parts of the city, “turnout is lagging,” Van Putten says.

Which could spell trouble for efforts to raise the minimum wage and the Tacoma roads package, seeing as it includes not one but two new taxes. In low-turnout elections, the demographics of voters who do cast a ballot tend to skew toward the older, whiter, wealthier and more conservative.

“Tax measures and liberal ballot items tend to suffer when turnout drops,” Van Putten says.

So what do we make of all this? The clearest takeaway may also be the most important: Right now, we’re dealing with projections and guesswork. While history can provide context, and even potential outcomes, we won’t know for sure what any of this year’s numbers mean until results start coming from the auditor’s office Tuesday night.

And best of all?

There’s still time to vote.

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