Democracy, voters are just not that into you

Hotly contested races in Everett, Snohomish and Mukilteo did not spur much interest.

EVERETT — Voters showed little interest in the November election in most Snohomish County communities.

Turnout across the entire county was 32.7 percent for the Nov. 7 election, the lowest mark for an odd-year general election in nearly half a century.

But it wasn’t bad everywhere.

In Index, 72 percent of the town’s 118 registered voters cast ballots.

And more than half the voters in Snohomish and Mukilteo took part in electing their respective city leaders as well as considering proposals on taxes and marijuana.

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said it’s disappointing such civic participation didn’t occur in every city.

“I wish more people had voted,” she said. “I wish more people had been interested in their local areas and would have taken the time to vote.”

The dismally low participation was one for the record books.

This year’s turnout in the county is below 2015, which was 34 percent, and is the lowest mark since 1971 when it sunk to 31 percent, according to county election data.

On the bright side, Snohomish ranked second, behind Index, with 53.3 percent of its voters participating. Mukilteo reached 51.4 percent.

Both of those cities had the type of elections which grab headlines and stir conversations at the proverbial water cooler.

In Snohomish, the election of a new mayor incited quite a community firestorm. Residents also got to offer advice on whether the city should lift its ban on marijuana retailers.

In Mukilteo, a controversial aerospace executive’s bid for City Council fomented a campaign of opposition by a pop-up political committee. Also, the ballot contained a tax hike measure to pay for road improvements.

There were plenty of intriguing and heated campaigns elsewhere but they failed to enthuse the electorate as much.

In Everett, for example, the pricey and competitive contest to succeed retiring Mayor Ray Stephanson inspired only a 33.2 percent turnout, while in Marysville, where four of the seven City Council seats were filled, only 29.5 percent participated. Lake Stevens and Arlington had even poorer showings at 28.1 percent and 29.8 percent respectively.

One explanation is the lack of any statewide ballot measures of consequence or countywide races of interest, said Garth Fell, county elections and recording manager. People motivated to vote on the measures will tend to go ahead and fill out the rest of the ballot, he said.

This was the first year since 1985 without a statewide initiative or referendum on the ballot, according to Erich Ebel, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

There does seem to be a correlation in Snohomish County.

In the November 2013 general election, turnout in the county was almost 10 percentage points higher at 41.5 percent. That year had two statewide initiatives — a measure requiring labels on products with genetically modified ingredients and one pushed by Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman to reform the initiative process.

Participation in most cities exceeded the countywide figure. It did not in Everett, however, the 36.7 percent turnout was better than 2017.

Ironically, Index, Snohomish and Mukilteo each recorded lower levels of participation. However, all three still eclipsed the countywide bar as Index finished highest overall in the county with a 59.5 percent mark.

Across the board turnout was even better in 2009 when, again, there were two big statewide items. One was a referendum of a law expanding rights for same-sex couples and the other was a tax-limiting effort from Eyman.

That year, the county recorded a 48.6 percent turnout. Index led with 63.5 percent followed by Edmonds, Mukilteo and Brier, each exceeding 55 percent. Everett had one of the lowest turnouts at 44.8 percent.

While the absence of statewide initiatives helps explain this year’s low turnout, election officials said participation has been trending downward in non-presidential and odd-year elections for awhile.

It’s occurred despite efforts at the local and state levels to make voting easier. Ballots get sent out three weeks before they are due and there is an increasing number of drop boxes in which they can be returned postage-free. In future years, there’s talk of the state even paying for postage.

Voting-age adults may simply be less in the mood to engage when anything other than the presidency is at stake.

The 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections published by CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project found a reason registered voters sit out elections is because they don’t like their choices. The report is based on interviews with registered voters in all 50 states.

It found 64 percent of those surveyed who did not vote — and 72 percent in Washington — listed “I didn’t like candidates or campaign issues” as a factor in their decision.

Weikel, who is in her third term as Snohomish County’s auditor, said it makes sense especially where local races are concerned.

“If there’s nothing that kindles their interest” it’s unlikely they’re going to vote, she said.

Weikel said her office will be working with more community groups to encourage greater civic participation.

It’s an attempt to ignite interest in 2018 elections in which voters will be acting on the funding and building of schools, and electing more than a dozen state lawmakers in Snohomish County alone.

“It’s really disillusioning to have a party and nobody comes,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

How they turned out

The first number is 2017 turnout, and the second is 2013 turnout.

Snohomish County 32.7 percent/41.5 percent

Index 72 percent/59.5 percent

Snohomish 53.3 percent/44.7 percent

Mukilteo 51.4 percent/50.7 percent

Edmonds 40.9 percent/52.1 percent

Mountlake Terrace 35.8 percent/41.2 percent

Lynnwood 34.3 percent/42.1 percent

Mill Creek 33.4 percent/45.8 percent

Everett 33.2 percent/36.7 percent

Monroe 33 percent/42.9 percent

Arlington 29.8 percent/38.7 percent

Marysville 29.5 percent/37.1 percent

Lake Stevens 28.14 percent/35.6 percent

County Council District 1 31.7 percent/41.1 percent

County Council District 4 30.7 percent/40.8 percent

County Council District 5 34 percent/42.5 percent

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