A tersely-worded tweet Tuesday evening from the Washington Secretary of State’s office announced the numbers.
“All WA counties have now certified their Primary returns. 1.22m ballots, 31.14% turnout — low but among highest in nation this mid-term.”
When “low but among highest in nation this mid-term” is the best face you can put on it, you know the numbers are grim. In fact, the Secretary of State’s office predicted July 15, a few weeks before the Aug. 5 primary, that voters would mail in ballots at a reasonably better rate.
“We’re saying around 40 percent, which would be average of turnout for a midterm primary,” David Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office told me July 15. He added at the time that mid-term primaries in 2006 and 2010 had been in that range.
Ammons lamented the prediction Tuesday evening.
“Definitely it was less than stellar for the primary,” Ammons said.
He suggested that looking back, those two earlier primaries had something that this year did not: statewide races. In 2010, Clint Didier ran as a tea-party alternative to Republican Dino Rossi. In 2006, Sen. Maria Cantwell was up against her soon-to-be unsuccessful challenger Mike McGavick.
As for other surprises in the numbers, Ammons pointed to turnout in Seattle, where only 33.6 percent of registered voters weighed in on the creation of a new park district.
“I thought the parks issue would draw more,” Ammons said. “There’s a lot of good, faithful voters in Seattle that are attuned to politics and love voting at the drop of a hat.”
Overall, about 29 percent of King County voters mailed in election ballots. Check out the county-by-county breakdown here.
Regardless, the Secretary of State’s game-face tweet about other states being much worse has merit. Only 10 percent of primary voters turned out this year in Maine; 11.4 percent in Texas, 18 percent in Illinois; 25 percent in California, according to one roundup.
Earlier this summer, Washington Post reporter Dan Balz wrote about declining voter turnout, how it can give rise to more partisan politicians, and some ideas on how to start engaging voters again. Balz, like others before him, argues that gerrymandered congressional districts that lopsidedly favor one political party or the other decrease competition and interest. He cites an analysis showing that in the past two decades “the number of competitive House districts has declined from 164 to just 90.”
The Center for Voting and Democracy lays out a bunch of reforms that could boost turnout, including: universal voter registration, electing presidents by popular vote, fair representation and instant runoff voting. Read more about those here.
In the meantime, Washington will have to settle for just not being the worst.
Said Ammons, “We can take some solace in that.”