A person drops off their ballot on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A person drops off their ballot on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

26% primary turnout echoes past ‘off-year’ elections in Snohomish County

The most recent odd-year turnout figures were 26.8%, 37.0%, 23.9% and 21.9%. Officials have ideas for how to improve those numbers.

EVERETT — Primary voter turnout was on par with other off-year elections in Snohomish County, but still lagged far below midterm and presidential elections.

By the end of vote-counting, turnout was expected to be around 26.5%.

The most recent odd-year election totals were 26.8%, 37.0%, 23.9% and 21.9%.

On Monday, over 135,000 ballots had been counted. About 100 more ballots were expected to be counted by the end of the election. There were 513,786 registered voters in 852 precincts in Snohomish County.

“It can be frustrating that more voters aren’t participating in these important primaries, but I think that where we have the primary situated in August has some impact,” said county Auditor Garth Fell, who is running to retain the position this year. “Certainly the type of election year and the races involved don’t create the kind of national buzz and conversation that can draw more voters.”

Fell has been Snohomish County’s auditor since 2020 and has overseen elections for 15 years. His opponent who made it through the primary, Cindy Gobel, worked with police records for 11 years at Western Washington University, before taking jobs in elections at the county and state levels.

“I think it comes down to, one, really respecting the system and honoring it and wanting to be a part of it and then education, educating about what that looks like, why it’s important and how to be a part of it,” Gobel said. “I’m not sure it matters what day (the election) is. I think what really matters is coming back to respecting the process and wanting to participate in it, knowing how it affects us and why we should have our voices heard.”

Statistics in Snohomish County — and nationally — show far more voter interest in presidential and mid-term election years, in both primary and general elections. In 2022, over 37% of voters returned primary ballots, and in 2020, nearly 54% of registered voters cast a ballot in the primary.

The next-highest primary turnout in Snohomish County in the past 25 years was over 45% in 2004.

Meanwhile, 85% of county voters returned a ballot in the general election in 2020.

Washington has one of the most voter-friendly systems in the country. It’s one of 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., with same-day registration. Residents are mailed a ballot and can either return it in person or by mail.

Last year, the King County Metropolitan Council pitched moving some races currently on odd years to even years. But this can lead to what elections officials call “ballot fatigue” — basically, there are so many races on the ballot so voters can find it exhausting to get through them all.

Made with Flourish

“I do think we see fall-off as you go down larger ballots,” Fell said. “Moving local elections to even years may not resolve the concerns and issues with voter turnout. Something to be discussed and considered, but I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to this, that’s going to answer all the questions and create the sort of turnout we typically see in, say, presidential elections.”

Another potential fix could be moving primaries to May. Snohomish County has not had a May election since 2008, though they have happened sporadically since at least 1989. Elections were held in May all but one year from 1996 to 2008.

Those were mostly small, special elections and not primaries. Voters were not choosing candidates, they were mostly choosing policy. Turnout was fairly high for May elections, ranging from a low of 28.43% of ballots being returned in 2003 to over 46% in 1996.

“That might have more impact on turnout. I think that’s something for the Legislature to continue to contemplate,” Fell said. “How do we position the primary in a place where more people will understand its importance and be motivated to participate?”

Gobel said she would want more data showing a move to a May primary would work.

“I feel like switching the day is a Band-Aid instead of actually addressing its messaging and education,” Gobel said. “It’s being out in the community showing why it’s relevant.”

School board, mayoral and city council races often impact voters’ lives more directly than federal elections. This year, Snohomish County voters will decide a tie-breaking vote between progressives and conservatives on the County Council, as well as the chief position in county leadership.

There are also races for judge, county sheriff and auditor — which will decide who oversees elections in the county.

“Some people call it turnout, I call it participation, but definitely disappointed in that,” said Bob Hagglund, a Republican running for county executive who advanced to November’s general election. “That’s normal. It’s a primary and odd year election. It’s about as low as it goes on participation.”

It certainly is not a partisan issue, either.

“In general, we need higher turnout,” said Megan Dunn, the Democratic incumbent running to retain County Council Position 2. “We’re glad for every vote that’s cast.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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