EVERETT — Snohomish County mailed ballots for the March 10 presidential primary to roughly 476,000 registered voters on Thursday.
And local and state election officials expect a noticeable bump in how many of those ballots will be returned because the electoral event is coming at a time when the race for the Democratic Party nomination is still competitive.
“Our past primaries have been later in the process or in May,” said County Auditor Garth Fell. “Many times, at that point, it’s clear who the top nominees are.”
Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation last March to hold the electoral event on the second Tuesday in March, rather than late May — a move expected to give Washington voters greater prominence in choosing the nominees who will appear on the November ballot.
But the new law came with a caveat: To have their ballot counted, voters will have to say they are a member of the political party of the candidate they are backing.
While Secretary of State Kim Wyman expects a turnout boost due to the earlier primary date, the party declaration requirement will likely deter some voters, she said.
“They hate it,” Wyman said. “Most voters in Washington consider themselves to be independent. They don’t want people in their communities to know their party affiliation.”
When given the option to cast a ballot as “unaffiliated” in past presidential primaries, many Washington voters have taken it. In 1996, about 444,000 of roughly 662,000 voters chose the unaffiliated option, Wyman said. Nearly 40 percent of voters who cast ballots in the 2000 presidential primary did so as unaffiliated.
The requirement to choose a party was in place during the 2016 primary.
“This is an in-the-moment choice that they’re making. They’re certainly free to change their mind in the next election and vote for whoever they want. It has no bearing on how they can vote in future elections,” Fell said.
A voter’s ballot is secret, but the party they choose is public information, Fell said. The Auditor’s Office provides that information to the parties and retains the data for 60 days. It’s available for others, upon request, for political purposes.
This year, Washington’s presidential primary will come just a week after Super Tuesday, when 14 states will hold nominating contests.
It’s the state’s earliest presidential primary since the one in February 2008, which had a local turnout rate of nearly 39 percent, Fell said. By comparison, 32 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots in the May 2016 presidential primary.
“There’s so many candidates still in play that (each voter’s) vote actually will help to contribute to what candidates move forward,” Snohomish County Democratic Party Chairwoman Hillary Moralez said. “That’s a big difference.”
The primary results will mean more to the state Democratic Party than they have in the past.
The party announced last year that it would use the results of the state’s presidential primary to allocate delegates to candidates instead of divvying up those delegates based on precinct caucuses, as it has done in previous years.
Under the new hybrid system, the primary results will be used to apportion delegates to candidates, and caucuses and conventions will be used to choose the delegates who will represent the state at the national convention, according to the Associated Press.
Moralez said she’s pleased that the state party opted to “open up accessibility” by using the results of the mail-in election instead of depending on voters attending the caucuses.
Caucuses typically attract 1% to 3% of registered voters, while primaries generally have turnout rates of at least 30 to 40 percent, according to the Secretary of State.
In the past, party caucus-goers were required to declare themselves Democrats before participating. “My hope is that there won’t be a difference from showing up in a neighborhood gym to engage in the caucus process versus checking off a ballot at your home,” Moralez said.
There are 13 Democratic candidates on the ballot, some of whom have dropped out of the race since the ballot was finalized. There’s a 14th option for Democrats to choose “uncommitted delegates.” By choosing “uncommitted delegates,” a voter is leaving their decision to an uncommitted delegate who will pick one candidate at the convention.
Republicans moved in 2016 to allot their presidential delegates using the primary results.
Donald Trump is the sole Republican candidate on the ballot.
Ballots are due by 8 p.m. on March 10. They must be postmarked or deposited in one of the county’s drop boxes by then. A list of drop box locations is available at snohomishcountywa.gov/225/Ballot-Drop-Box-Locations.
The last day to register to vote or change a registration address online at votewa.gov or by phone is March 2. However, individuals may update their address or register to vote in person at the auditor’s office, at 3000 Rockefeller Ave. in Everett, during regular business hours through 8 p.m. on March 10.
Voters may get a replacement ballot at the auditor’s office or by calling 425-388-3444.
This story has been modified to delete erroneous information about voters’ ballot-filling mistakes.
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.