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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington saw most ballots ever cast in midterm election

Elections worker Micah Chan moves boxes of ballots from where they were separated from security envelopes behind him at the King County Elections office Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters turned out in near-record numbers for this year’s mid-term election. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Washington voters turned out in near-record numbers for the 2018 midterm electionas more than 7 of 10 who are registered cast more than 3 million ballots, based on final tallies reported by counties this week.

Were the numbers boosted by free return postage in the state’s all-mail voting system? Were they helped by the increased number of drop boxes mandated by state law? Was it a reflection of a ballot that contained some controversial issues like taxes and gun control, high-spending campaigns or some tight congressional and legislative contests in different parts of the state?

“I think it’s a combination of all those things,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington’s chief elections officer, said Thursday. “I don’t think you can point to any one thing.”

Earlier this year Wyman and Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state would dip into emergency funds to cover the cost of return postage for the 2018 primary and general elections. In previous elections, voters either had to pay for their postage or save the stamp by placing the ballot and signed envelope in a designated drop box set up by the county.

A law passed by the Legislature in 2017 increased the number of drop boxes in many counties based on the number of registered voters and other factors.

The goal of both moves was to boost turnout.

As the state prepares to certify all results next week in advance of a handful of recounts for close races, the raw numbers suggest that those changes worked, although they may have also shifted voter choices. About 60 percent of ballots were returned by mail this year, Wyman said, while in 2017 it was about 60 percent by drop box.

The Legislature will have to decide whether to continue a state subsidy for return postage on ballots, and the numbers are still being analyzed, Wyman said.

“Anecdotally, the feedback I got from people around the state was 5-to-1 in favor,” she said.

The midterm turnout – the number of ballots cast compared to the number of registered voters in the state – is the second highest for a midterm election in at least the last 60 years. At 71.83 percent, it’s just a shade under the high-water mark of 71.85 percent set in 1970.

But it’s worth noting that the state and its voter rolls have grown significantly in the last 48 years. In the 1970 midterm, 1,123,000 voters cast ballots. This year, more than twice that many ballots were cast: 3,133,448, and that is the most cast in a midterm election in Washington. (Note: An early version of this post had an incorrect number for the ballots cast in the 1970 midterm.)

In terms of total ballots cast, 2018 ranks third in state history, behind the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections, although ahead of the 2008 presidential election, when turnout hit a modern record of 84.6 percent.

Another factor in the high turnout was likely a series of competitive congressional races, including Eastern Washington’s 5th District race between incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic challenger Lisa Brown, Wyman said.

“We saw large amounts of money spent,” she said.

Some $9.5 million had been spent between McMorris Rodgers and Brown, according to the most recent Federal Elections Commission reports. That total will likely grow because those reports were filed three weeks before the election.

Washington had two other hotly contested congressional races and a string of tight legislative races that were also expensive, including one where the candidates and independent groups supporting or opposing them spent some $3 million over a single seat.

Statewide initiatives also asked voters whether they wanted to enact a fee on carbon pollution, increase restrictions on semi-automatic rifles and ban local taxes on soda and groceries.

The campaign against the carbon fee initiative was the most expensive in state history, at nearly $30 million, much of it from large oil companies. Supporters, who got large donations from major environmental groups, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, spent almost $15 million in an unsuccessful effort to get it passed.

The soda and grocery tax ban, got some $20 million support from the soft-drink industry. The gun control initiative spent about $5 million, although of the three measures, it may have attracted the most attention from voters because more ballots – 3,099,159 – were cast on that than the other statewide initiatives, or the one statewide candidate race for U.S. Senate.

“This was an election on Trump, for voters to weigh in whether they supported the president or want some checks on him,” Wyman said.