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Fewer than 1 in 3 voters turned out for the Aug. 1 primary election in Washington, and state officials think they know what the problem is.
“People are on vacation,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman said of the August primary date.
“You’re going to have more engagement in voters — with voters — in June or May than you’re going to have in August,” said Wyman, the state’s chief elections officer.
The low turnout in this year’s primary election, though not unprecedented, is prompting some officials to ask whether holding an election in the middle of summer is the best idea. Turnout didn’t crack 27 percent statewide.
Wyman, a Republican, is among those who thinks it’s time for a change.
“The conversation of moving our regular primary earlier is one I really want to start having with legislators,” she said last week.
People are on vacation.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman, on holding a primary election the first Tuesday of August
Some Democrats are thinking the same way.
“I think it’s a terrible date for turnout,” said state Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila and the chairman of the House committee that deals with elections. “It is almost the worst date you could think of, having an election at the height of summer when everyone is out doing other things, like hiking and jetskiing.”
Yet that wasn’t what the state’s Legislature thought a decade ago, when lawmakers switched the primary election date from mid-September to August. At the time, state officials and county auditors said the seven-week window between the September primary and a November general election didn’t leave enough time to count ballots and deal with any recounts, while still ensuring general election ballots got out to military and overseas voters on time.
Those concerns remain today, especially since the state is now entirely vote by mail, with ballots requiring only a postmark by Election Day to be counted. That means ballot counting continues for weeks after Election Day.
Because of those issues, Wyman supports moving the primary earlier, not later, to help solve what she sees as the turnout problem with the August primary. Hudgins has also proposed moving the primary to May, but his bill to make that happen didn’t advance in the Legislature this year.
One possible reason: Lawmakers in recent years have still been caught up in legislative sessions in May and June. That makes it hard for them to campaign for re-election during that time, since sitting lawmakers are prohibited from raising money while the Legislature is in session.
It is almost the worst date you could think of, having an election at the height of summer when everyone is out doing other things, like hiking and jetskiing.
State Rep. Zack Hudgins, who supports moving the state’s primary election from August to May
Yet some folks think an earlier primary election date would push lawmakers to finish their work more quickly. This year, lawmakers’ 105-day session was scheduled to adjourn in late April, but disagreements over the state budget and other issues caused lawmakers to stretch their work out until July 20.
“Maybe it gives them a little extra incentive to get done on time — maybe it will inspire them to strike a deal and get done with session,” said Keith Schipper, a Republican political consultant. He supports holding the primary election in June or May.
“I’d like to do it before kids get out of school for the summer, because once you get into that vacation window where people are worried about their trips to Disneyland and camping at Lake Chelan, they’re not worried about what any candidate has to say. It’s not what’s on their minds.”
Others think it is silly to think the state can’t push the election back to after Labor Day. State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said he thinks a September primary date would help boost turnout the most.
Carlyle said he can’t see why in the year 2017, election officials can’t harness modern technology to improve the turnaround time for ballots and make it happen.
“I am not saying there aren’t legitimate technical arguments against that, but it certainly seems like we have it within our capacity to make it work, given our sophisticated election systems,” Carlyle said.
Carlyle said he’s working to get more information from elections officials about the challenges of having a September primary, and whether it’s possible to move the election back to that date. He bemoaned that local officials were celebrating 40 percent turnout in this year’s primary election in Seattle, where a high profile, crowded race for mayor was on the ballot.
“I think that’s embarrassing,” Carlyle said.
Others question whether switching the date would help turnout much, if at all.
Ultimately, at the end of the day in America, you have the option not to vote, and issues and candidates drive people to polls.
State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way
While turnout in the primary election has gone down in recent years, it’s not clear if the August date is to blame, said Ben Anderstone, a local Democratic political consultant.
“When we originally moved it back from September, since then turnout has fallen, but it’s kind of tough to untie that from the nationwide decline in turnout in local elections that has also occurred during that period,” Anderstone said.
He said in most parts of the state this year, turnout was average to above average.
Election turnout is typically lower in years like 2017, when mostly local contests appear on the ballot. Even-numbered years that feature big statewide or federal races tend to generate more interest.
“A lot of people aren’t interested in a primary election, no matter when it is,” Anderstone said.
Still, Anderstone said moving the date away from August probably couldn’t hurt. “I think the craziness of that time of year doesn’t help,” he said.
State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said it’s unclear if moving the date would solve the problem. He said people turn out to vote largely based on what’s on the ballot.
Miloscia, who now chairs the Senate State Government Committee that handles election policy, worked on the proposal in 2006 that moved the primary election from September to August.
“There was no clear solution 10 years back to find the perfect option to increase voter turnout,” Miloscia said.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day in America, you have the option not to vote, and issues and candidates drive people to polls.”
Primary election turnout
Prior to 2007, when Washington state held its primary elections in mid-September, turnout during odd-numbered local election years typically approached 34 percent according to a 2007 report from the Associated Press. This year, statewide turnout in the August primary won’t crack 27 percent.
Yet a review of earlier primary elections shows that even before the state switched to the August primary date, turnout numbers fluctuated quite a bit over time — at least in the even-numbered years for which statewide data is available.
Turnout in August primary elections
Turnout in September primaries:*
Source: Office of the Secretary of State, News Tribune and Olympian archives
*State officials don’t have comprehensive data for odd-numbered primary election years prior to 2009.