The low primary election turnout once again has people asking whether this is the best time to hold it. But the problem is more about voter motivation.
As of Thursday afternoon, turnout for Spokane County was just under 19 percent, or less than 1 in 5 eligible voters bothering to return a ballot. Turnout statewide was 21.4 percent. That’s certainly abysmal, but it joins a long list of primaries that haven’t drawn much interest, especially in odd-numbered years when state and federal seats aren’t at stake.
Statewide turnout has been under 30 percent in the past four odd-numbered years.
At the same time, voting has never been easier and registration numbers keep climbing (which, incidentally, can cause turnout percentages to drop). But getting people to actually vote remains a tough nut to crack. This should give pause to any plans to alter election logistics to encourage participation.
Holding an election in the dead of summer isn’t ideal. People are on vacation, at the lake or have otherwise checked out of civic life. But turnout wasn’t all that great before the primary was moved to August.
“‘Pathetic’ turnout worst since Watergate …” said an S-R headline on Sept. 17, 1998. At the time the article was written, Spokane County turnout was 25 percent and that election included a congressional race. In September 2001, local turnout sagged to 15 percent, in part because the 9/11 attacks occurred the week before.
So even when the primary landed in the middle of September, it was difficult to draw more than one-quarter of eligible voters to the polls. Returning the election to a time when summer is over and the kids are back at school wouldn’t guarantee great participation.
Besides, it would be impossible given the federal election requirement that military and overseas ballots be sent 45 days before the general election. Because of that, the state moved the primary to the middle of August. But election officials said that gave them too little time to tabulate the primary results and produce a ballot for the general election, so the primary was moved to the first week in August.
The primary could be moved to May, which is when Oregon and Idaho hold theirs. Perhaps the lure of campaign season would provide state legislators the necessary push to wrap up business on time. But the risk remains that no matter where the primary is placed, turnout might remain dismal.
What we need is a citizenry that is eager to participate. Too many voters look at their ballot and say, “Why bother?” Granted, a ballot with, say, three local races might not be thrilling, but winnowing the field to the top two for the general election does matter.
If you don’t do it, the people committed to participation (political parties and special interests) will gladly assume more power. If your reason to skip voting is “it doesn’t matter,” it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Voting is easy. You have nearly three weeks to do so. You don’t even have to leave your home. To change the system for people who still don’t bother misses the real issue:
How to motivate them to care?
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