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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: What will primary turnout be?

OLYMPIA – With Washington’s primary a mere 10 days away, the big question – after who’ll survive and go to the general election, of course – is how many voters will bother to cast ballots.

It’s a common question around the country, as a recent study shows primary turnout is down in most states from 2010, the last mid-term primaries.

A recent report from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate says turnout is down even in states that took steps to make it easier to vote by offering such things as election day registration or early voting. This must confound voting-reform advocates who believe the only thing needed to do to promote more frequent and fervent voting is to make it easier, as if voters are being deterred from casting a ballot because they must turn over their first-born child to register and walk two miles in the snow, uphill both ways, to the polling place on election day. . . 

. . . While some states have come up with impediments to registration in an effort to discourage voter fraud – a crime that seems to occur about as frequently as stage coach robbery – Washington continues to allow voters to sign up online, by mail and in person for much of the year. It shuts off the online and mail-in registration a few weeks before an election, to have a reasonably complete list of addresses for sending some 3.9 million ballots. But the state still allows in-person registration at a county elections office through tomorrow afternoon.

As for ease of voting, the U.S. Postal Service delivers ballots to Washington voters some three weeks before the election day deadline, and is willing to pick it up for the price of a stamp. You don’t have to go any farther than the mail box to vote.

Based on all that, our turnout should be about 105 percent. We’ll be lucky if it hits 40 percent.

Some good government types argue the state should allow would-be voters to register up to and including election day. Yet there is no clear evidence to suggest that people who put off registering until the last minute will be suddenly so energized by civic zeal that they would rush down to the elections office, fill out the form and cast a ballot. If we are going to reward procrastinators for registration, ought we not also reward them with late voting privileges as well, accepting their ballots for the two weeks after election day, while ballots are still being counted?

Maybe we could keep the voting open for everyone after the counting starts and put running tallies on the Internet and TVW, turning the close elections into a kind of reality show where the winner is in doubt up until the end. That might help turnout.

Curtis Gans, director of the center and the acknowledged go-to guy on matters of voter turnout, said in the study the real problem with poor turnout isn’t procedure, it’s motivation. Voters think their ballot choices are bad, have less and less faith in government and, if they are young, may have grown up in a household where their parents didn’t vote.

I’m no expert, but it might also help primary turnout to have some more competitive districts that provide more competitive races. Right now, Washington’s legislative districts are mainly drawn in a way that favors one party or the other. Notice the lack of Democratic challengers in the 4th, 7th and 9th districts, and paucity of Republican challengers in the 3rd. Strong partisans with no one on the ballot have minimal motivation to vote.

Get more people excited about good candidates in close races, and you won’t even have to change the voting laws to make turnout go up.

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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