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

Idaho voter turnout ‘abysmal’ at 38 percent

BOISE – As Idaho certified its election results Wednesday, it became official: This year was the first time that less than 40 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots in a general election.

“Frankly, it was disappointing,” Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said. “We broke through a barrier that we didn’t want to break through.”

The previous low – 40.21 percent of the voting-age population – came in the midterm election in 2010, as Idaho has continued to see declining voter participation, a trend that’s been steady since 1980.

Idaho’s not alone – Ysursa said the national average turnout this year was 38 percent of voting-age population.

“It’s abysmal,” he said, “and we need to turn it around.”

Voter turnout was low in Washington as well, largely because of a lack of competitive races at the top of the ticket.

But voter turnout in Washington generally has been on the upswing in recent years, especially since the advent of voting by mail. Washington dipped below 40 percent of its voting-age population in midterm elections in 1978 and 1990, but it hasn’t happened since then.

“Generally, it’s robust,” said David Ammons, spokesman for the Washington secretary of state’s office.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who heads the United States Elections Project, said turnout lagged across the country in states where there weren’t competitive races at the top of the ticket, like hot races for U.S. Senate seats.

“That said, Idaho usually does better than other states that might have lack of competition,” he said. One factor that tends to work in Idaho’s favor is that it’s one of just eight states that allows voters to register at the polls on Election Day.

Final turnout figures showed that 56.1 percent of Idaho’s registered voters participated in the election. That translates to just 37.59 percent of Idaho’s voting-age population.

In Washington, 53.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The state still is calculating the percentage of the voting-age population, but early estimates put it at roughly 40 percent. In Washington’s midterm election in 2010, 72 percent of registered voters cast ballots, which was 50 percent of the voting-age population.

Ysursa has led efforts to make voting easier in Idaho, from Election Day registration to no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. He has led moves to let 17-year-olds serve as poll workers, and runs a statewide mock election for high school government classes.

“And yet our voting participation has gone down,” he said.

“We’re building a cycle of nonvoting. We’ve got to reverse that trend. I don’t know what the magic answer is – I’ve been trying for 40 years.”

Ysursa is retiring this year after four decades in the Idaho secretary of state’s office.

Kootenai County had the fourth-lowest turnout in the state this month, at 52.1 percent of registered voters.

Idaho’s voter turnout rises in presidential years and hit 74 percent of registered voters – 57.6 percent of the voting-age population – in 2012. But it’s still declining overall.