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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Primary turnout strong in Eastern Washington

Cathy McMorris Rodgers prepares to give a speech after receiving the news that she took the edge over Lisa Brown for Fifth House District in the Washington state primary election during the Spokane County Republican Party's election night party, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, in Spokane, Wash. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – With the primary ballots almost all counted and the general election ballot generally set, it may be time to pause and give a pat on the back to Washington residents who exercised their right to vote in greater numbers than some previous primaries.

Heck, they voted in greater numbers than last year’s general election, which admittedly was something of a low-water mark for state turnout.

Statewide turnout stands at 40.6 percent, higher than the 2014 primary. Some people will want to attribute that to the decision by the state to cover return postage on ballots. We’ll be able to test that hypothesis in coming weeks, as the counties report the number of ballots that came in by mail versus those that were put in drop boxes, and compare those to previous elections. After all, if the mail-in ballot ratio is up and the drop-box ballot ratio is down, we might not have gained much.

But even before those numbers are available, there’s an early indicator that a much more basic reason may exist for the higher turnout: good – as in competitive – political races that interest more voters, and prompt them to mark those ballots and turn them in.

The clearest example of that may be in Eastern Washington, where as even casual readers might recall, there’s a pretty good race for the 5th Congressional District seat between Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic challenger Lisa Brown.

The turnout in nearly all counties in the 5th is noticeably higher than the state as a whole. It would be tempting, for purposes of bragging rights among the reporters who represent West Side news interests, to say that folks in the 5th are just more cognizant of their civic duty than people in other parts of the state. While the 5th does typically run a few percentage points ahead of state averages, this year most are above that:

    Spokane County, which is 70 percent of the electorate, is at 46 percent.

    Garfield County is at 66 percent. Ferry County at 56 percent. Columbia County at 55 percent. Lincoln and Pend Oreille counties at 54 percent. Stevens County at 51 percent. Walla Walla County at 47 percent and Whitman County at 46 percent. Only Asotin County trails the state average, and at that by just a smidge, at 40.3 percent.

    Adams, Okanogan, Franklin, Benton and Yakima counties, Eastern Washington counties in the 4th Congressional District where Republican incumbent Dan Newhouse appears to have an easy re-election run, all have turnouts in the 30s. Thurston County, which has a big chunk of the 10th Congressional District where Democratic incumbent Denny Heck also is expected to win re-election, is coming in at just over 38 percent.

Individual county or legislative races might drive local turnout up, but congressional districts may offer the best vehicle for comparing portions of the state to the whole.

Mr. Postman …

While the upside of mail-in ballots is the convenience of being able to vote at home and just send it in, there’s a downside we try to remind voters about: They have to be postmarked by Election Day.

Even though the state paid for postage, voters still had to get them in on time.

In Spokane County, 1,058 voters didn’t. Their envelopes arrived in the mail postmarked Wednesday or later.

Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin said it’s not possible to tell why they were postmarked late. Were they clipped to the home mailbox on Tuesday afternoon, which would make it unlikely they’d be processed at the local post office before Wednesday? Were they dropped in a blue mailbox after that day’s pickup? Were some voters unclear what day it was, which seems possible considering about 200 arrived after Thursday?

Could be some of each. But based on the number of ballots overall, McLaughlin said that’s not an unreasonable number of late-postmarked ballots for a primary.

In the 2014 primary, there were 652 late ballots, but only about 100,000 people voted. The county received about 143,000 ballots this primary, so it’s not far out of line.

Compared to the 2016 presidential election, when only 274 ballots came in with a late postmark, it seems like quite an increase. But presidential elections are a special situation, McLaughlin said.

“Everyone wants to get their vote in early” in the presidential race, he said.

Early v. late

If anyone was surprised that the late vote count trended Republican in Spokane County, they were probably forgetting their local electoral history. Four of the five legislative districts wholly or partially in the county generally vote Republican, and only one – central Spokane’s 3rd District – is reliably Democrat.

That’s been true since the days when most of us voted at the polls, and a small percentage voted absentee. Going to all-mail ballots mitigated that a bit, but didn’t wipe it out. The late GOP surge was particularly noticeable in the 6th District and that, too, has been true for years. Democrats who finished only a percentage point or two ahead on Election Night were warned not to celebrate too heartily, and Republicans not to concede too quickly, because those results regularly turned around.