OLYMPIA – Washington saw record-breaking voter turnout in the Aug. 4 primary, and as the general election draws near, election officials are preparing for even higher turnout and urging voters to get their ballots in early.
Voter turnout statewide was 54.44% – up almost 20% from the August 2016 primary, according to certified election data from the secretary of state. The last time voter turnout was this high was 1964, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said.
Over 1 million more ballots were processed this primary than in the 2016 primary, Wyman said.
“It’s commendable that counties processed them so quickly,” she said.
County auditors were already anticipating record-breaking turnout for the general election, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said, but such high turnout during the primary was a surprise.
Spokane County had 49.72% turnout, one of the lowest turnouts in the state. Dalton said she was surprised Spokane County’s was so low, and didn’t know why it was. Still, turnout in the county was high compared to the 34.02% turnout in the 2016 August primary.
A few explanations for such high turnout this election could be an increased interest in politics due to COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement, or simply the fact that people have more time at home to research their ballot and get it in the mail, Wyman said.
“Choosing leaders in communities is top-of-mind right now,” Wyman said.
One of the biggest explanations for high turnout is voters’ interest in certain races on the ballot. If there’s a high-stakes race, more people will vote, said Priscilla Southwell, a University of Oregon political scientist who studies vote-by-mail and elections. In Washington, the 36-candidate governor’s race or the open lieutenant governor’s seat might have been a factor in turnout.
Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said the county’s open congressional and legislative seats, as well as the lieutenant governor vacancy, likely drew a lot more people to vote. Thurston County saw 56.6% turnout, higher than the 54.44% state average.
“There was a lot at stake this primary,” Hall said.
Whitman County Auditor Sandy Jamison said people this election season are very invested in who’s going to be their president. Even though the presidential race was not on the August ballot in Washington, Jamison said, many people were using the primary to prepare for the general. Whitman County had 52.28% turnout, compared to 34.47% in the August 2016 primary.
It’s something states across the country are seeing, even in primaries that don’t include the presidential race, such as Washington’s, Southwell said. She said she hopes the high turnout in primaries is due to people preparing to vote by mail in November.
“People are saying ‘OK, this is the new normal, and I should at least familiarize myself with it,’ ” Southwell said.
Southwell agreed with Wyman that another explanation for high turnout this year could be people spending more time at home, which might give them more time to research and return their ballot on time.
“People are less distracted,” Southwell said. “During the pandemic, there’s a lot more time to think about things and read the ballot thoroughly.”
Wyman also said voting and vote-by-mail have been in the news a lot during the past few months, with President Donald Trump’s criticism of vote-by-mail and issues surrounding the funding of the U.S. Postal Service.
It put elections front and center, Wyman said, and people realized as voters that they need to be heard.
What worries county auditors the most is how late most ballots were returned. In normal years, most ballots are returned the weekend before Election Day, Dalton said, but this year, most came on or after Election Day.
“Voters (in the primary) waited really until the last minute,” Dalton said. “We really want to encourage voters not to do that in the general.”
Wyman said the late showing of ballots could also be due to changes at the U.S. Postal Service that have led to slower delivery across the country. For the general election, one suggestion she gave to auditors was finding the earliest time to mail out the first wave of ballots, which are sent at a nonprofit bulk rate that takes three to 10 days.
Hall said Thurston County will start mailing ballots to voters 25 days prior to the election, earlier than normal, to avoid delays or people waiting until the last minute.
The secretary of state’s office will also file an emergency change in the administrative code, allowing ballots mailed out 15 days or closer to the election to be mailed at a first-class rate, which would be delivered within two to five days. These ballots are often mailed later because of registration updates or signature verification.
Wyman said she’s telling auditors to expect between 80% and 90% turnout for the general election. Washington state’s previous record is 84.61% in the 2008 general election, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Dalton said county auditors have been meeting with the U.S. Postal Service on almost a weekly basis, but that she is not too worried about mailing delays. She said the postal service in Washington knows how to handle vote-by-mail.
“They’re experienced,” Dalton said. “They’re good at it.”
But voters need to get their ballots in early, Dalton said. If they turn them in to a mailbox on Election Day after the box pick-up time, the ballot won’t be postmarked on Election Day, and therefore, it won’t count.
Mail isn’t the only option for voters, who can also drop their ballots off at numerous drop-off boxes across their counties. In the August primary, about 52% of ballots came from drop boxes, and about 47% came from mail, according to Wyman.
“What we are trying to do is provide options that work for (voters) and empower them to make those choices,” Wyman said.
Jamison said it’s hard to predict what will happen in November in Whitman County, because she still doesn’t know how many students will be back on campus at Washington State University, which is having mostly remote classes this semester. She still anticipates a number of students who will be on campus and need to register in Whitman County.
She encourages them not to wait.
“Please vote early,” Jamison said. “Don’t let the envelope sit on your counter.”
Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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