OLYMPIA – If you haven’t registered to vote, a lot of people are out looking for you.
They’ve searched for you at Pig Out in the Park, at grocery stores, and in the crowd at a Spokane professional wrestling match three nights ago. And don’t be surprised if they turn up on your doorstep.
With six weeks to go before the election, political parties, groups and even individual candidates are rushing to register people to vote.
“We’ve been getting in voter registration applications by the foot,” said Spokane County Auditor Vickie Dalton. Some 238,950 people are now registered to vote in the county. That’s up 20,000 from last November, and nearly 9,000 more than in the last presidential election.
“That is a record, the most people we’ve ever had registered in Spokane County,” said county elections manager Paul Brandt. And those numbers don’t include 2,000 to 3,000 applications that stacked up in recent weeks, when the law required elections officials to halt registration temporarily before Tuesday’s primary.
Registration has now resumed. Voters have until Oct. 2 to mail in an application, or until Oct. 18 to register in person. The election is Nov. 2.
“A lot of people who’ve never registered get turned on by what’s happening, by ads or the presidential election,” said state Secretary of State Sam Reed. “I think our biggest surge will be over the next few weeks.”
So far this year, he said, the state has processed more than 400,000 applications – a 200 percent increase over last year.
“They are just pouring in,” Reed said. “We’ve been getting 10,000 a week.”
Reed’s office is distributing more than a million voter applications to virtually anyone who will hand them out. Unions, students, campaign workers, party volunteers and political groups then fan out to get them into the hands of people who haven’t registered.
“It’s amazing. I’ve not seen this many new registrants in probably 10 years of political work,” said Jon Wyss, vice chairman of the Spokane County GOP. The party’s booth at the fair has registered 600 people so far, among 3,000 the party’s registered this campaign season.
“A lot of them are young voters, 18 to 21, who’ve never voted before and want to get involved,” said Wyss. “The next largest group is people 40 to 55, most of whom moved here but didn’t register.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether a flurry of registrations actually translates into higher turnout. The percentage of Washingtonians who are registered has shrunk steadily from 91 percent to 71 percent over the last half-century. Voter turnout has also shrunk, despite a 1991 law allowing any Washingtonian to vote by mail and a 1990 law allowing adults to register to vote when they get a driver’s license.
During the Eisenhower administration, 8 out of 10 voters made it to the polls on Election Day. Today – even with the ease of mailing in a ballot – only about half the people registered actually bother to vote.
Nancy Eitreim, president of Seattle’s League of Women Voters, blames the press for not prodding people more.
“For a number of years, voting and registering was a huge thing in the media,” she said. “Now you may get some coverage the night before the voting registration deadline, and it doesn’t even tell people where to go.”
Anthony Walters, a 23-year-old political coordinator in Spokane for the state Labor Council, blames posturing and game-playing by politicians, as well as the money-driven campaign cycle. Ultimately, he thinks, public financing of campaigns is the best way to get middle- and low-income people into office.
“The average person can’t relate to a senator who’s been a millionaire since before he was born,” said Walters.
Still, with polls predicting close races for president, governor and some legislative seats, political groups are betting that getting out more voters – their kind of voters – will be the ticket to victory. Nationally, independent political groups like America Coming Together are spending millions of dollars hiring people to register voters and get them to vote on Nov. 2.
“I think that people are going to be surprised by how many people turn out to vote this time,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. “We have 18 offices statewide, and every single one of them reports that they have more volunteers than they can handle. We’re just packed to the gills.”
We think it’s a good, positive aspect to get more registrations and more votes. That’s what this democracy is all about.”