Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Behind the low turnout numbers

This is a map of turnout in Spokane County for the 2013 general election (Jim Camden)
This is a map of turnout in Spokane County for the 2013 general election (Jim Camden)

Related documents

Conventional wisdom for campaign seasons like the one just passed says local elections help boost turnout for the statewide contests.
Voting for people you might know, or at least have a chance to bump into and harangue in line at Rosauers or Starbuck’s – and who arguably have a bigger impact on your daily life –usually trumps issues or offices that are farther removed, politically as well as geographically.
A look at a map Spokane County’s turnout for the 2013 general election shows that wasn’t true. At best, local elections had no effect; at worst, they were a bit of a drag. . .

To make the map, we broke down the precincts so that those with turnout within a few percentage points of the county average of 43.14 percent were colored yellow; those that were 10 percent lower were than that "average" band were colored light red and those that went lower dark red; those 10 percent higher than the average band were light blue and those that went even higher, dark blue.

Spokane, Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Airway Heights and Cheney all had municipal elections. All had a majority of their precincts that came in at, or below, the county’s average turnout of 43.14 percent.
An exception can be noted for Spokane’s South Council District, where most precincts are above the average turnout, and some markedly above. But those are also precincts that always generate high turnout.
The suburbs – where voters may have had marginally contested school board or fire district races to decide but no mayors or councilmembers – generally turned out better than the cities. In some cases, much better.
Another exception is worth noting: Among the areas with some of the lowest turnout are the West Plains precincts in and around Airway Heights and Fairchild Air Force Base, which is also the area that contained the land addressed in Spokane County’s Proposition 1. Folks living beyond the runway and Fairchild’s east fence, as well as those in Airway Heights also “stayed away in droves” as the saying goes.
If the proposal to sell bonds and buy land near Fairchild’s landing zone was critical to the base’s well being, apparently that wasn’t made crystal clear to residents of the base, who had a county-low turnout of just under 10 percent.
While many residents of the base are registered elsewhere, there are 888 registered voters at Fairchild; only 88 bothered to mark a ballot and send it in. To their credit, all 88 were able to pick between yes or no on Prop 1, making it the only precinct in the county where no voter left that measure blank.
Spokane’s Northeast Council District was also below average. One could argue that’s because there was no real council race there. Incumbent Amber Waldref was on the ballot by herself.
But turnout is always low, sometimes abysmally so, in Hillyard, Nevada-Lidgerwood and the precincts between east of Division, so a good race might not have made any difference.
Turnout was high in rural areas, perhaps because farmers weren’t happy with Initiative 522, which required labeling of genetically modified food products. It’s true they don’t grow many genetically modified crops out there, but farm groups had come out against it and opponents had tailored some of their gazillion-dollar campaign to the farm vote.
All of this is speculation that might take some political scientist’s doctoral dissertation to prove. But likely what the turnout map best shows is evidence of a continuing gulf in participation between city precincts where incomes are lower and suburban precincts where the incomes are higher. Spokane County has its share of low-income residents. Some people might say more than its share; what they don’t share in, is shaping their government.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.