Opinion

If registered voters don’t vote, we’re all worse for it

Katarina Gruber, who was then an 18-year-old Clover Park High senior, seems happy to receive a display version of her voter registration card from Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson at the Pierce County Annex in April 2016. Gruber was honored as Washington’s 4 millionth voter, and relished the chance to vote in her first presidential election.
Katarina Gruber, who was then an 18-year-old Clover Park High senior, seems happy to receive a display version of her voter registration card from Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson at the Pierce County Annex in April 2016. Gruber was honored as Washington’s 4 millionth voter, and relished the chance to vote in her first presidential election. News Tribune file photo, 2016

Last year, months before the presidential election, a student from Lakewood was treated like a conquering hero (or at least a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes winner) after completing a simple civic task: She registered to vote.

To honor the 18-year-old, Pierce County and Washington election officials celebrated with donuts, cookies and a framed, super-size voter ID card. That was her unexpected reward for registering to be our state’s 4 millionth voter.

Reaching this milestone, and continuing to zoom past it, resulted from tenacious work by Washington election leaders to make voter registration easier, using tools such as motor voter laws and social media pitches. Bravo to them.

Now if only there were an effective way to nudge more of those registered millions to open their ballot envelopes, do a bit of research and actually vote a couple of times a year.

How many pastries and plaques would it take to push local voter turnout past 50 percent? How about 40? Heck, we might be lucky to reach 30 percent this year.

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson opts for guarded optimism when she predicts 33 to 35 percent turnout in Tuesday’s general election. She notes that while there are more registered voters than ever, many signed up specifically to participate in the presidential election. And many are now fed up with politics..

Odd-year elections are historically cursed with skimpy turnouts, what with their collection of lower-profile candidates and low-budget campaigns for city councils, school boards, and fire, parks and water districts.

But 2017 figures to be more meager than most. Pierce County voter participation has been sinking this decade: from 49.5 percent in the 2011 general election, dropping to 41 percent in 2013, then tumbling to 34 percent in 2015.

This year’s primary election was ominous, as the final tally came in at an anemic 18.7 percent. Granted, a primary never generates the interest of a decisive general election, much less a primary held the first day of August.

But 18.7 percent turnout? In a healthy democracy, we’d have cause for concern if that were the percentage of all adults voting. We should be very alarmed when less than one-fifth of those who took the active step of registering, thus self identifying as interested voters, bother to cast ballots in an easy-peasy all-mail election.

The good news is that it’s not too late for eleventh-hour voters to be trend busters. General election ballots must be dropped off or postmarked by Tuesday, and there are lots of of compelling reasons to do so.

Fourteen cities or towns are choosing mayors, including Tacoma’s first competitive mayoral race in eight years. The vote for Port of Tacoma commissioners could help determine to what extent the Tideflats remains a traditional bulwark of family-wage jobs for years to come. And the list goes on.

It’s been said that voting locally can drive the change you want to see nationally. Police accountability, sanctuary cities, education innovation, fossil fuel dependence: These are just a few broad societal issues where local officeholders often shape the narrative.

Listen to Katarina Gruber, the young Lakewood woman who seized the privilege of being Washington’s 4 millionth voter: “I would like my voice to be heard, because as an American citizen, that is my voice.” That’s true, whether the election year is even or odd.

And every registered voter who doesn’t vote has taken a wasteful vow of silence, another valuable voice gone mute.

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