Dismal voter turnout alerts to larger risks

The results of the Aug. 6 primary election were certified Tuesday. It takes a while to make sure everything’s copacetic. But it doesn’t take that long to count the ballots. You could have done it at your card table.

Only about a quarter of the state’s registered voters turned out to vote. In Seattle’s high-profile mayoral election, turnout was a little better, just under 35 percent of registered voters showed up. Not all counties had a primary contest. The numbers take that into account.

Using another measure, the results are even worse. Registered voters make up only about 75 percent of eligible voters statewide. So fewer than one in five eligible voters in Washington cast a primary ballot.

News stories reported that the Secretary of State’s office called the turnout “dismal,” but said it was in keeping with other off-year elections. True enough. And not just here.

Plug “dismal turnout” and “primary election” into your search engine and the hits just keep coming.

The explanations for declining turnout in general elections don’t apply to off-year primaries. Sure can’t blame long lines. We vote by mail. There are no hurdles placed in the way of prospective voters in this state. It’s easier to vote in Washington than it is to get a double latte at Starbucks.

Don’t blame the August election date, either. States on different calendars show similar performance. Maybe voters figured the NSA knew how they were going to vote and had already counted the ballots.

A better explanation may be that there simply wasn’t enough at stake. Take the special election for state Senate in the 26th Legislative District, which will be intense in the fall. The race pits Democrat Nathan Schlicher against Republican Jan Angel. Both were guaranteed to make it to the November ballot. Only 28,500 people voted in the primary. Last November, 71,000 voters cast ballots in the district, an impressive 83 percent of registered voters.

Presidential elections drive turnout. Legislative races amount to the undercard in a heavyweight fight, the opening band for a rock star. The headliner draws the crowd and the ticket benefits. Voters overall may know little about the candidates and issues down the ballot, but turnout is up. More voters doesn’t mean more informed voters. Increased participation is a mixed blessing.

Yet, there are legitimate reasons for concern. Turned off voters don’t turn out. Voters today hold our political institutions in low esteem. They believe aspirational politics has given way to acrimonious partisanship.

We also suffer from a lack of competitive districts. Where legislative and municipal races are under one party control, there’s little incentive for voters of the other persuasion to waste a stamp. And if you know your party has a lock on the election, you may not bother either.

The most energized part of the electorate is often the group that dominates a low turnout election. There are consequences to letting a small, self-interested group of voters frame the issues. Groupthink replaces debate. Choices become increasingly limited.

Indulge a little hyperbole. Conservative activist Grover Norquist infamously said he wanted to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Not an edifying line. Most of us want improved public safety, good schools, protection and sustenance for the poor and vulnerable, and a reliable and safe transportation system.

Yet it might be good to have a government small enough that it could roll over in bed without crushing you.

Where partisan hues are deep red or deep blue, unorthodox views rarely get a hearing. Minority views are marginalized. Although I’m not a fan, our “top two” primary at least makes possible a competitive general election in districts so dominated by one party that the winner of that party’s primary would have a November cakewalk. It preserves some choice for a larger electorate.

The “dismal” participation this month is a symptom alerting us to larger risks. When a race matters and voters know the can make a difference, they turn out. Too often, they don’t see much point. There’s no quick fix. But one might begin with more competitive districts and candidates who are engaged with — and can engage — their constituents.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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