By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
EVERETT— With primary election ballots all counted, Snohomish County emerged as the place with the worst turnout of voters in the state.
Snohomish County earned the dubious distinction with a final turnout figure of 25.6 percent, the county’s poorest showing for a non-presidential mid-term primary in two decades.
Turnout reached only 21.9 percent in 1990 and 22.7 percent in 1974, according to county election officials.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel, noting it felt like she threw a party and nobody showed up.
“This is our opportunity to have impact on the government that is in place, and so few people take that opportunity to heart and participate,” she said. “It’s discouraging.”
Overall, the state’s three most populous counties— King, Pierce and Snohomish— finished in the bottom five, based on the percentage of voter participation.
Pierce tallied the second-lowest with 27.4 percent turnout, and King was fifth at 29.3 percent. In between were Clark (28.6 percent) and Thurston (29 percent) counties.
On the other end of the spectrum, the rural counties of Ferry (54.2 percent), Garfield (54 percent) and Jefferson (50.6 percent) were the only three to break the 50 percent barrier.
Statewide, with all 39 counties combined, turnout fell just shy of 31.2 percent, which didn’t bring a smile to the face of Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
“I was certain we would be higher,” she said. But, she noted, turnout has been down in primaries across the country. Washington turnout, poor though it might seem, was the second-highest of any state.
Wyman and Weikel attributed voter disinterest mostly to a general lack of electoral sizzle.
“The more I do this, the more I have come to conclude that it comes down to what’s on the ballot,” Wyman said. “If the voters think the race is important and they can make the difference, they’ll be moved to act. For most voters, nothing lit a fire under them” on Aug. 5.
Unlike other states, Washington’s ballot did not contain a race for a U.S. Senate seat or major statewide office or controversial initiative. Those are what typically attract lots of campaign spending and drive up voter participation.
That left a smattering of local ballot measures and contentious contests for legislative seats to bring out more than the hard-core, dedicated voters.
A lack of exciting races is only part of the answer, Weikel said.
“It goes deeper. Not only aren’t people interested in voting, people aren’t interested in running for government jobs,” she said.
Inevitably, a low turnout prompts talk of changing the process in some manner.
Wyman is open to considering moving the primary earlier in the year, maybe to June, as in California, where she once lived. But she knows there’s opposition from those who think it will make campaigns run longer and from lawmakers who worry it will hurt their ability to raise money.
Weikel would like a conversation on removing partisan races from the primary ballot when there are only two candidates.
“If the primary election is a tool to move the top two (candidates) forward and you only have two, why is there a primary?” she said.
She understands the objections which political parties and lawmakers would raise, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed.
In the end, Weikel said, it boils down to inspiring civic participation.
“I can provide the tools to take away the barriers to voting,” she said. “It is up to (voters) if they want to make a difference.”
Snohomish County 25.6 %
Pierce County 27.4 %
Clark County 28.6 %
Thurston County 29 %
King County 29.3 %
Ferry County 54.2 %
Garfield County 54 %
Jefferson County 50.6 %
Columbia County 49.8 %
Klickitat County 43.9 %
Statewide: 31.2 %
Source: Secretary of State