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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Washington has 4 million voters. How many will vote?

Washington passed an electoral milestone recently, pushing its voter rolls past the 4 million mark.

This is a reasonable statistic to honor, and Secretary of State Kim Wyman did so by finding the quintessential new voter to celebrate. Wyman, whose duties include being the state’s chief election officer, went to Tacoma where she and Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson congratulated Katarina Gruber for her recent registration.

This is not to say that Gruber was definitely Number 4 million as opposed to Number 3,999,999 or Number 4,000,001. The state has multiple ways of registering to vote – in person, by mail, online – as well as several of ways of being dropped from the rolls, like dying, moving or being convicted of a felony. So there’s no real way to determine when the net effect of those additions and subtractions hit the big 4-plus-six-0s

Bryan Zylstra, a Wyman spokesman, said the elections office was keeping close track in March as the milestone approached and “captured a small group of registrations” that would have been around the 4 million mark. From that group they selected Gruber, a Lakewood high school senior, because she made a compelling story: a Millennial who went to her county elections office on her 18th birthday to sign up in person. 

Imagine that. A Millennial who didn’t use the internet for something when she could have.

Deadlines approaching

Regardless of the exact number, it’s clear Washington will have more voters than ever available for the May 24 presidential primary. Online registration for that election closes on Monday, but interested wouldbe voters who miss that can do what Gruber did and show up a their county elections office anytime before May 16 to register in person.

A recent voter survey by The Elway Poll shows Washington well split on presidential preference. Hillary Clinton is slightly ahead of Bernie Sanders, and both have about twice the support of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, with John Kasich trailing the pack. That may be a result of the Republicans dividing the votes at least three ways – the Washington ballot will actually have four, because Ben Carson never notified state officials he was formally out of the race – compared to the two-way split for the Democrats. Plus there are more people who self-identify as Democrats.

Plus, about a third of those contacted by pollsters self-identified as independents.

This partisan division should make predicting the outcome of the primary difficult. First, Democrats  concerned about choosing their party’s nominee have no real reason to vote. The state party will ignore the results because it’s relying on the caucus and convention system to award delegates. The candidates’ supporters can cast ballots, and the Sanders backers might use the results to argue that some Washington superdelegates should switch to Bernie if he’s a big winner. But nothing would require that.

Second, true independents could be put off by the ballot, which requires a voter to pledge a certain amount of fealty to a party. It’s not a blood oath, but voters must either declare themselves a Republican or say they consider themselves a Democrat to have their vote counted. Those who don't won't have their ballot counted.

Republicans have a good reason to vote, because the state party is using the primary results to divide the delegates among presidential candidates for the first round of convention balloting. How delegates would vote in succeeding ballots – if, for the first time in 64 years, there is a second round –isn’t known. But if an open convention becomes more likely, the candidates are likely to pay close attention to the selection of delegates the weekend before the primary.

Not to be Debbie Downer but. . .

While it is laudable that Washington has a record number of voters, it’s important to note that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a record number of votes cast this year.

State elections records for the presidential election years, which typically see the heaviest turnout, show the rise in registration lags slightly behind the increase in people living in the state who are eligible to register. And the increase in ballots cast usually lags behind the increase in registrations. 

Between 1952 and 2012, the state’s voting age population has rose an average of 9 percent every four years, while registration rose 7 percent. In 1988 and 1996, the number of ballots cast actually went down from the previous presidential election. In 2012, registrations went up faster than population, but the increase in ballots cast didn’t keep pace.

All of that is kind of a geeky way to say increased registration is good, but it’s the beginning not the end of an engaged electorate.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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