Ballot return rate low for state primary

TUESDAY, JULY 31, 2012

The presidential campaign has been in the news for months and political commercials are starting to crowd other products off the airwaves, but Washington voters seem less enthusiastic than usual 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 Monday are behind the pace for the same period in 2008, the last state primary in a presidential election year, data from the 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.

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 primary turnout. 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 the average of 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 until the ballot deadline, Spokane County had received almost 12 percent of its ballots back Monday.

That compares with 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 contested races. Last year, Spokane County had about 11 percent of its ballots back by this point in the election, while in 2009 more than 17 percent had been returned.

Elections officials and others say there could be several reasons for the falloff.

One is this year’s shift of the primary from the third week of August to the first, closer to the thick of summer vacation season. 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 vote at the polls, voters now can mark their ballots at 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 voters who will cast ballots wait until just before or on election day, McLaughlin said. There could still be a big rush around Tuesday, 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 weeks.

Click here to comment on this story »