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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington state voter turnout down from last midterm; new efforts planned to boost interest

A steady stream of cars line up at the North Spokane Library on Hawthorne Road to drop off their ballots on Nov. 8. At times there were upwards of 30 cars lined down the block to take their turn delivering their votes in the local and national elections.  (Christopher Anderson/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Brunner Seattle Times

Washington makes voting easy as pie. Every registered voter gets a ballot mailed to them. Sending them back is free. You can even register and vote on Election Day.

Still, roughly 1.7 million of the state’s 4.8 million registered voters took a pass on the Nov. 8 midterm, with key races for control of the U.S. Senate and House and the state Legislature hanging in the balance, along with lots of local ballot measures to collect taxes for open spaces, parks, police, fire departments and schools.

With nearly all the straggling mail ballots counted as of Wednesday, turnout in the midterm reached about 64%. That’s less than the roughly 72% turnout in 2018, which was a near-record for a midterm.

Turnout was slightly higher than the state average in King County – home to more than a third of Washington voters – at about 65%, with huge Democratic margins helping propel U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to a convincing sixth-term win.

Turnout hit 63% in Snohomish County and 60% in Pierce County. Garfield County, which has just 1,700 voters, showed the highest turnout, at nearly 78%. San Juan County, with 15,000 voters, was right behind, with 77%. Yakima County set the low mark, with just under half of its 128,000 voters returning ballots.

Midterms typically attract less attention and votes than elections in presidential years. Washington’s turnout record was set in 2008, when nearly 85% of voters returned ballots, inspired by the presidential election won by Barack Obama.

“It’s typical of previous elections,” Secretary of State Steve Hobbs said in an interview. “Obviously, I would like to have every election with high turnout. I think everyone who is registered to vote should vote. I think we need to constantly try to encourage people, and that’s an ongoing thing we’ve done.”

While down from the 2018 midterm mark, the Nov. 8 midterm turnout was higher than in the 2014 midterm, when just 54% of voters participated.

Republicans took a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm, but a definitive “red wave” backlash to President Joe Biden did not materialize. The GOP’s House margin next year will be narrow, and Democrats maintained control of the Senate.

In Washington, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier hung on to her seat in the swing 8th Congressional District, defeating Republican challenger Matt Larkin. And Democrats scored a surprise upset win in the 3rd District, where Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez defeated the Trump-backed Republican candidate, Joe Kent.

Hobbs said his office is working on new efforts to encourage turnout, including hiring a small outreach team to encourage voting in communities with lower turnout rates. This year, his office also received $1.2 million in the state budget for a “Vote with Confidence” campaign, including ads promoting the state’s vote-by-mail system as fair and transparent.

About 28,000 ballots statewide were rejected because signatures on the ballot envelopes didn’t match the ones on file with county elections offices.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court is challenging the practice of disqualifying ballots based on signature mismatches, contending it unconstitutionally disenfranchises tens of thousands of voters every election.

An additional 7,000 voters missed out on the latest election because they didn’t get their ballots postmarked or placed in a drop box by the 8 p.m. Election Day deadline.

About 2,500 such ballots were rejected in King County for being returned too late, said Halei Watkins, a spokesperson for King County Elections.

Unlike ballots flagged for signature problems, which can be “cured” if voters submit a form with an updated signature by a Monday deadline, the late-arriving ballots cannot be fixed and counted.

“That’s 2,500 good reasons to vote early in every election, so a red light or getting held up at work doesn’t cost you your vote,” Watkins said.