YAKIMA – Free postage for ballots. Dozens of active candidates. More places to drop off ballots.
For whatever reason, turnout for Tuesday’s primary election was higher than expected in Yakima County.
Local election officials had predicted a 30 percent turnout. Instead, with 34.2 percent of ballots returned as of Wednesday, Yakima County is on track to hit 35 percent.
That’s close to the five-year average, but the actual number of potential voters has grown thanks to aggressive efforts to make it easier to register to vote.
Since 2014, the number of Yakima County voters has increased by 7.6 percent for a total of 115,052.
In predicting a 30 percent turnout, county Auditor Charles Ross noted that while the number of registered voters was growing, the number of voters who actually cast ballots was likely to remain the same, resulting in a smaller turnout.
Ross also believed turnout would be lower because the five-year average includes the 2016 presidential election when thousands more vote than in off years, said Yolanda Arellano with the Yakima County Elections Office.
Exactly why turnout was higher than normal is difficult to say, she said.
But the sheer number of candidates on the ballot and the amount of campaigning they did, paid postage for ballots and increasing numbers of community drop boxes were all likely part of the reason.
This year more candidates worked to make their face known by going door-to-door, sending out paid mailers or phoning potential voters, and that raised awareness of the election and knowledge of candidates, she said.
It’s too early to say what effect free mailing of ballots and more ballot drop boxes across the Valley had on the election, but the ease and low cost probably played a part in turnout.
The drop boxes and free postage, which went into effect for the first time during this month’s primary, are just two examples of ways the state of Washington has eliminated barriers to voting.
In the coming years, the number of registered voters is likely to increase.
Starting next year, the state will begin automatically registering voters when residents seek or renew enhanced drivers’ licenses or identification cards, which require proof of citizenship.
Also, 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to preregister to vote, and in-person voter registration will be permitted on the same day of an election. In-person voter registration currently ends eight days before an election.
All three new measures are expected to take effect in summer 2019.