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Mon., July 30, 2012, 6:10 p.m.

Primary turnout could be low

The presidential campaign has been in the news for months and political commercials are starting to crowd other products off the airwaves, but Washington's voters seem less enthusiastic than normal about next month's state primary.
Ballots that were mailed to overseas and military voters in late June and the rest of the state almost two weeks ago are coming back less quickly than normal in some counties, including Spokane.
Returns through the Monday are behind the pace for the same period in 2008, the last state primary in a presidential election year, data from Spokane County Elections Office show. They also trail returns for most primaries since.
“We wish we had more in,” Mike McLaughlin, supervisor of elections, said Monday. . .

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. . . The state’s 39 counties do not uniformly report ballot return statistics, but a spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed, who oversees elections, said Spokane’s experience is not unique. “That’s what we’re seeing anecdotally,” David Ammons said.
Earlier this month, Reed released an optimistic forecast for this year’s primaryturnout. Based on a hotly contested governor’s race, races for other statewide executive and judicial posts, all the state’s U.S. House seats and one of the two U.S. Senate seats, he thought voters would be “revved up”. He estimated turnout would be higher than average, at 46 percent.
That was based on historic trends, not ballot returns, Ammons said. Most ballots hadn’t been mailed yet.
With just over a week before the deadline for mailing or dropping off ballots, Spokane County has received almost 12 percent of its ballots back.
That compares to 14.5 percent by the same point in 2008, the last presidential election year, and nearly 16 percent in 2010, when all congressional and legislative districts had elections so every voter in the state received a ballot. In odd-numbered years, voters in some unincorporated areas don’t get primary ballots because they don’t have any contested races. Last year, Spokane County had about 11 percent of its ballots back by this point in the election, while in 2009 it had more than 17 percent returned.
Elections officials and others say there could be several reasons for the fall off.
One is this year’s shift of the primary date deeper into the summer vacation season, from the third week of August to the first. That’s the second change in six years for the state primary, which for decades was held in mid September.
Another is an end to the turnout boost the state has seen for the last decade as counties shifted from poll-site voting to all-mail balloting. Instead of having a single day to cast a ballot at the polls, voters now can cast a ballot any time over about three weeks. When comparing comparable years, turnout for most primaries has gone up in all-mail elections in Spokane County, although it appears to be leveling off.
The last two counties to make the switch were King County in 2009 and Pierce County in 2011.
Even though they have ballots for as long as three weeks, about half of the voters who will cast ballots wait until just before or on Election Day, McLaughlin said. There could still be a big rush around Aug. 7, which would mean a smaller portion of the ballots will be opened, processed and counted on Election Night and more will be counted in the following days and weeks.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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