Elections

At least 42 percent of Pierce voters had turned in ballots by Saturday

Pierce County ballot processing: The hard work of democracy

A small army of 450 extra hires and 13 full-time staff, processing early mail-in ballots at the elections division of the Pierce County Auditor's Office are mobilized for Election Day's biggest wave of ballots to hit Monday and Tuesday.
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A small army of 450 extra hires and 13 full-time staff, processing early mail-in ballots at the elections division of the Pierce County Auditor's Office are mobilized for Election Day's biggest wave of ballots to hit Monday and Tuesday.

Two days before Election Day, more than 40 percent of Pierce County’s 490,666 registered voters have spoken. The rest, as usual, are waiting to the last minute.

Based on current patterns and predictions, they might not break recent turnout records, but they will cast a higher raw number of votes than ever before.

Statistics from the Pierce County auditor show 207,146 ballots cast as of Saturday afternoon, with many more to come. The auditor forecasts a local turnout of 80 percent, matching a statewide prediction from the Secretary of State’s Office.

Hitting the predicted 80 percent threshold would equate to roughly 392,500 votes — more than 2012 (352,548), or 2008 (278,715), the year President Barack Obama was elected, with a turnout rate that reached 85 percent.

The final rush of ballots will hit Monday, Tuesday (Election Day) and Wednesday, as the last ballots mailed or turned in via drop box to the auditor’s office arrive. That’s been the pattern in prior years.

So far, the pace of ballots returned locally matches the prediction, tracking closely with turnout percentages from the last presidential race, in 2012, when 79.58 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots. Ballot returns so far suggest that a heated presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump hasn’t affected turnout much in either direction.

Matching that percentage also means more voters. The county has added almost 50,000 this year — no surprise in a presidential year, but still meaningful.

It’s the most registered voters we’ve ever had in our county’s history.

Mike Rooney, Pierce County elections manager

“We generally do see our voter registration numbers swell for presidential elections,” said county elections manager Mike Rooney. “Still, it’s the most registered voters we’ve ever had in our county’s history.”

Population growth also accounts for the increase in local registered voters, and it leaves Pierce County in its customary historical position as the second-largest source of votes in the state, roughly 11.5 percent of the statewide total. King County is the big dog as always, accounting for 30 percent. Snohomish and Spokane counties rank third and fourth, with 10.6 and 7 percent of the statewide vote respectively.

Statewide, as of Friday, about 1.7 million of the more than 4.2 million ballots sent had been returned by mail or drop box.

Record turnout for the state came during the 2008 election, when 84.6 percent of voters participated. In 2012, turnout was 81.3 percent.

While election analysts across the country dissect early voting patterns in various states, the effect is muted in Washington, one of only three states that vote entirely by mail, along with Oregon and Colorado.

While election analysts across the country dissect early voting patterns in various states, the effect is muted in Washington, one of only three states that vote entirely by mail, along with Oregon and Colorado.

That means no long lines at polling places and no corresponding legal tussles over access to polling places.

Another more subtle factor remains the same: Half of the county’s ballots are arriving via the 36 drop boxes scattered around the county, rather than the mail. Elections workers collect the ballots from the drop boxes each day. They’ll close for good Tuesday night at 8 p.m.

“We do have some people that wait until the last minute,” Rooney said. “We take it as a late ballot.”

By volume, the most popular drop box stands in front of the auditor’s office at the Pierce County Annex at 2401 S. 35th St. in Tacoma. A drop box in Gig Harbor at 4811 Point Fosdick Drive is running a close second, followed by another at the South Hill Library at 15420 Meridian Ave. E. on South Hill. Collectively, those three boxes account for close to 30,000 ballots.

Where is turnout running high? Measured by legislative districts, voters in the 26th (Gig Harbor area) and 28th are leading the pack.

Where is turnout running high? Measured by legislative districts, voters in the 26th (Gig Harbor area) and 28th are leading the pack. As of Friday, turnout had reached 46 percent and 40 percent in those areas, with more votes to come. In contrast, early ballots in Tacoma’s 29th district were lagging a bit, at a 32.6 percent turnout clip as of Friday evening.

The first returns on election night will reflect the early ballots, elections officials said. Voting at the last minute still counts, but the numbers won’t be reflected in daily counts for a day or two.

Ballots postmarked Nov. 8 will still be counted, along with those turned in via drop box. The clock is winding down, however, and elections officials continue to encourage voting sooner rather than later.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486, @seanrobinsonTNT

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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