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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Spin Control: That was the election that was

On election night, the question most likely to be asked and least likely to be answered accurately is: What’s turnout like?

Because of Washington’s vote-by-mail system that counts ballots for some two weeks after the election, no one knew for sure on Tuesday night. The best guess in Spokane County was that turnout would be low, but probably not historically so. Likely higher than the overall state average, which wasn’t going to hit the overly optimistic prognostication by Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

But then, elections officials are optimistic by nature, and almost always guesstimate high.

By Thursday evening, all ballots from drop boxes had been counted and most ballots dropped in the mail had been received. Spokane County turnout was hovering around 40 percent, and likely to go up a couple of more points by the time the election was certified.

That made it possible to map turnout patterns on the Spin Control blog, which admittedly went a bit crazy on election maps during the week. Using precinct data from the Spokane County Elections Office, the turnout map shows some wide variations in that 40 percent average from precinct to precinct. Such variations aren’t unusual, but they can be helpful for explaining Tuesday’s results and might be instructive for future campaigns.

The heaviest turnout percentages were in the county’s southeast corner, Spokane’s South Hill and northwest corner, and Liberty Lake. Its lightest voting precincts were on the West Plains, in Airway Heights, Fairchild Air Force Base and Cheney. But large portions of northeast Spokane and Spokane Valley were nothing to brag about, either.

While the percentages might change a bit in the final tabulation, the relative strengths of the turnout probably won’t.

But turnout isn’t the only thing that matters in elections. It’s a percentage of the votes cast, but not all precincts are created equal. Some have more than 1,000 registered voters, and others only a handful.

Flipping back and forth on the maps reveals that some of the southeast county precincts with high turnout also have relatively low numbers of registered voters, while some of the Spokane city and Liberty Lake precincts have high turnout and are packed with voters.

Successful campaigns for candidates or ballot issues are likely to apply a political version of the Willie Sutton rule. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is alleged to have said “because that’s where the money is.” (He denied he ever said that, but regardless, the rule is still good.)

Tactics that need rethinking

The 2015 election won’t set any records, but it may have provided us with a few tactics that future campaigns might want to avoid.

Spokane City Council president candidate John Ahern may have proved that in politics, silence is not golden. From the day he filed for office, Ahern told Spokesman-Review reporters he would not do interviews or answer questions on issues for features comparing the candidates’ stances. His reasoning was that the paper had always been negative to Republicans, a theme common on some talk radio shows and in certain circles. But it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny for a newspaper that has endorsed all but two GOP candidates for president since 1900, and backed many Republicans in the current election on its editorial page.

Reporters don’t actually care about the endorsements. Ahern has been annoyed by some past coverage, but when it comes to politicians, we strive to be equal opportunity annoyers.

“I’ll give you an interview after I win,” was his standard reply. His campaign had other problems, and he lost almost 2-to-1 to incumbent Ben Stuckart. So that interview apparently is out the window.

Opponents of Tim Eyman’s regular ballot measures for tax controls went to their standard playbook of denouncing the supermajority for tax increases plan as unconstitutional, then filing a lawsuit to keep it off the ballot (which history showed was doomed to fail, and it did), then excoriating it as undemocratic, trashing Eyman and pointing to polls that showed the initiative was trailing.

The outcome was the same as previous initiatives. Eyman’s supermajority plans are 6-0 at the ballot box. On Friday, opponents were touting the fact that King County had voted 60 percent against the measure, and thanking voters there and in three other counties for recognizing the initiative is “bad public policy.”

So, voters in the other 35 counties – and the 40 percent who voted yes in King County – are just too stupid to understand?

They are now preparing for a court challenge. Eyman’s record isn’t as good in the courts, but without a change in the opponents’ playbook, that’s likely where they will continue to end up after voters pass them.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items – and currently election maps – at blogs/spincontrol.

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