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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘This election, it was about anxiety’: Washington, Spokane County see record turnout and voter registration

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 8, 2020

Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin removes a stack of ballots from a counting machine as the Spokane County Elections Office counts the last of the ballots from Spokane County on Friday.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin removes a stack of ballots from a counting machine as the Spokane County Elections Office counts the last of the ballots from Spokane County on Friday. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Despite misinformation about voter fraud, fear of mail-in ballots not being counted and pouring rain on Election Day, far more voters in Spokane County and the state turned out for the 2020 presidential election than in 2016 with many first-time voters registering and casting their ballots minutes before the deadline.

As of Saturday, which is a few weeks before the election is certified, 4,129,683 ballots had been returned statewide. In the 2016 election, a total of about 3,392,000 ballots were returned. The turnout in 2016 in Washington was about 78.8% for the state, and the preliminary turnout for 2020 hovers at around 84%.

In Spokane County, voter turnout this year was also higher than in 2016. As of Saturday, there were about 293,000 ballots and close to 81% turnout compared to 2016, when about 239,000 ballots were cast and turnout was t 78.1%.

On Tuesday, thousands of voters showed up to the county’s two voter services centers, overwhelming them at times and leading to long lines to register, get a new ballot or a new envelope. Many who visited the voter service centers were first-time voters or hadn’t voted in decades, but registered out of fear of a Donald Trump or Joe Biden win.

Others showed up to vote in person, which is not an option under Washington’s election system, and requested a new ballot so they could fill it out and place it in a drop box there.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said on Monday and Tuesday around 4,675 people came into the county’s two voter service centers. About 1,350 of the visitors were registering to vote and 3,250 were seeking replacement ballots or envelopes, or were attempting to vote in person.

This is the first presidential election in Washington in which people were able to register to vote on Election Day. The Washington Legislature approved the change in 2018.

Dalton said the fear voters were experiencing, which drove many to vote for the first time, was different than any other election she’s seen. She said she hasn’t seen this much emotion from voters since 2008, when Barack Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change.

“In 2008 we saw enthusiasm, the first year Barack Obama ran … this election, it was about anxiety,” she said.

She noted others who had been following Trump’s tweets and comments before the election and had voted in Washington before may have changed their behavior because they felt the institution of voting was no longer safe.

“I think the misinformation and disinformation that was being put out there, especially people in upper levels of government, created anxiety and mistrust of the process,” she said.

“Voters here in the state of Washington have been voting by mail for more than 15 years. We were heavy absentee before that. Voters should be aware of the process, understand that it is safe and use it as we would normally use it.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 2020 likely will have the highest number of votes cast in the state’s history, but 2020 might not have the highest turnout because of the state’s growing population. Other elections, such as the 1992 contest between Bill Clinton, incumbent George H. W. Bush and independent businessman Ross Perot had a voter turnout of about 82%, and when Obama was elected in 2008, there was a turnout of about 84%.

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy at Washington State University, said turnout in presidential election has been rising going up for years as the country is growing more polarized, and the polarization and fear likely will continue until some of the underlying issues – income, ethnic and racial inequality – are addressed.

“The rhetoric in our campaigns has become more apocalyptic,” he said. Both sides “see a defeat as an existential threat to our country, and that’s been ratcheting up for at least 20 or 30 years now.”

He said the 2020 election has parallels to the instability the country was experiencing in the 1880s and 1890s – known as the Gilded Age – when the nation’s ethnic makeup was transforming and it was experiencing massive economic inequality.

Clayton said two presidential elections – in 1892 and 1896 – were very similar to what the country is currently experiencing.

William Jennings Bryan ran as a Democrat as a co-party ticket with the Populist party against William McKinley. Clayton said Bryan was a “fire breather” and populist, and their election produced massive turnout, a symptom of underlying issues in the country.

The nation was changing from an agriculture-based economy to industrial, and many working-class immigrants were entering the country, which also led to backlash.

“It produced a radical style of politics on both the left and the political right,” Clayton said.

He said there may be more economic insecurity and division in wealth now than in the Gilded Age, and there are also similar fears about immigration.

Voters interviewed outside of voter service centers in Spokane on Tuesday expressed similar concerns, saying they were voting out of fear of another Trump win, or said they were afraid that Biden and other members of the Democratic Party who identify as socialists – though Biden is not a socialist – could fundamentally alter the country.

Many new voters, especially voters younger than 35, were registering for the first time to vote for Biden, but several voters, especially those between 35 and 60, said they were trying to vote for the first time to cast their vote for Trump, who they felt was changing the economy for the better.

One voter, Jessica Griffin, 32, of Cheney, cast her first ballot ever for Biden after changing her mind from Trump. Griffin said she voted for the candidate she thought could bring the country together.

“We need healing, and (Trump) won’t do that,” she said.

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