Earlier vote may have played part in low turnout

EVERETT — Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel doesn’t expect the primary election predictions to come true.

She forecasted 44 percent of qualified voters in the county would participate in Tuesday’s primary. Secretary of State Sam Reed predicted 46 percent. The highest primary turnout in recent years was 45.8 percent in 1992.

“We’re still scanning ballots and sorting them and we’ll get some more tomorrow,” Weikel said Wednesday afternoon. “Maybe we’ll get up to 33 percent, which obviously is much less than the 44 percent we’d hoped for.”

And that’s way below the average turnout of 43 percent for presidential year primaries.

Weikel made her prediction based on an analysis of voter participation in previous years, Reed’s statewide voter forecast and the races on the ballot, she said.

The fact this was the state’s earliest primary could have contributed to the lower than average turnout, she added.

Voters used to cast their primary election ballots in September. In 2008, the first “top two” primary was held on the third Tuesday of August. This year, the election was again moved to the first Tuesday of the month. The change was made according to a new federal law that requires military and overseas voters ballots go out at least 45 days before the election.

“I think some people were surprised it came as quickly as it did even though we tried to let people know about it with some advertising,” Weikel said. “We had over 33,000 (ballots) put in drop boxes (Tuesday). That’s a huge amount of people who on the last day said, ‘I want to vote.’”

Reed said he didn’t believe that an earlier election affected turnout. And he thinks the percentage of ballots returned could still grow.

“We’re still expecting it to be up there close to 40 percent but who knows for sure,” said Reed, who is retiring after 12 years.

“We do know that there was a big surge right at the end on Monday, Tuesday, today and probably tomorrow, plus a large number of people using drop off boxes.”

Still, Reed said he’s disappointed. He thought races for four state offices without incumbents running, as well as open legislative seats, would attract more voters.

“We thought that would really bring people out,” Reed said. “I think what happened is statewide none of the races were high enough profile to draw voter turnout.”

Not many candidates had or used their money to air radio and television advertisements to get voters excited about their races, Reed added.

Other races, such as that for governor, might have seemed to have frontrunners long before election night.

While some races seemed to have a clear top two that would advance to the general election, voters had to be motivated to research other races, said David Domke, a University of Washington professor. People can feel alienated in an election process if they can’t relate to candidates on the ballot, he said. Others avoid the process if they feel inundated with an overwhelming amount of information or if they find it difficult to trust elected officials.

“There is this rising criticism and it has been rising for some time that you can’t trust the people in politics so voters just don’t feel like it’s worth any effort,” Domke said. “Certainly as you move from high profile races like the governor campaigns, to the less profiled like congressional or legislative, to campaigns that almost get no attention outside of yard signs, you really have to be a motivated voter to do the research.”

Weikel thinks that voter participation numbers could rise in the next couple of years if the primary election stays on the same day.

“I’m hoping that if we can keep it in the first part of August for the next couple of years we’ll see that turnout rise again,” she said.

Despite the lower-than-expected primary turnout, Reed expects November’s general election ballot issues, such as the presidential race, marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, to garner at least an 85 percent voter turnout.

“We’re going to get a good turnout in November,” he said. “We had easily twice as much, 85 percent in the last presidential election and I believe we’re going to match that or better.”

On Wednesday night, 84,712 ballots had been counted in Snohomish County resulting in an approximate 21.1 percent voter turnout. Snohomish County issued 400,448 primary ballots by mail and has received 121,408 ballots so far, Weikel said.

Election results are official after being certified by the Office of the Secretary of State. Counties have until Aug. 21 to certify the results and the Secretary of State will have three days after that to certify.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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