Election worker Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center for the Aug. 4, 2020, primary election in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Election worker Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center for the Aug. 4, 2020, primary election in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Lacking confidence in elections? See how it’s done.

A study finds better understanding of the ballot process could increase trust in elections.

By The Herald Editorial Board

We’ll admit that — in terms of guilt induction — the editorial board’s semi-annual reminders to vote in elections fall somewhere between NPR radio station pledge drives and the ASPCA ads with Sarah McLachland crooning “In the Arms of an Angel” to video of sad-eyed dogs behind the bars of shelter kennels.

Our defense, of course, is that encouraging you to register to vote — if you haven’t yet — and to use your ballot — also, if you haven’t yet — is in your best interest. And today is the deadline to complete your primary ballot and get it postmarked or returned to a drop box.

Primary elections, especially for the odd-year elections where the races primarily involve elections for county, city, school, port, fire and other local government posts, aren’t high-turnout affairs. But they are no less important than presidential election years, as these elections determine who will represent you in local decision making.

Yet, only about 11 percent to 16 percent of ballots sent to registered voters, depending on specific districts, had been returned to the county auditor’s elections office as of Friday. And turnout for odd-year primaries in Snohomish County in recent years have seen only about a quarter of eligible voters submit their votes; 22.9 percent in 2015, 23.9 percent in 2017, 24.3 percent in 2019 and 26.99 percent in 2021. At least the numbers are trending in the right direction.

Turnout in the county does increase for the general election each November, 35.9 percent in 2021 and 63 percent for the 2022 midterm election. Yet, while the general election is for all the marbles, voters sometimes fail to recognize how crucial primary elections are in setting the stage for the fall contests. Several races in the county for city councils, school boards, port and other districts feature contests among three or four candidates. And the quarter of voters — or fewer — who do vote are the ones who will determine who the top two candidates will be for the general election. Fail to vote in the primary and the candidate you might have supported most might not make it to November.

Much has been made in recent years of low voter turnout being a result of a lack of confidence and even distrust in the election process, but a recent report, “Dis(Trust) in Elections: Identifying Who Distrusts the Election Process and Why,” may challenge that notion and others.

The study, conducted for the Ad Council Research Institute for the Campaign Legal Center, surveyed voters from seven key swing states in the 2020 election: Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina and Georgia, all states where recounts had been ordered following allegations of unfounded election fraud during the presidential election.

An initial survey found the greatest distrust among conservative voters, who were most likely to suspect voter fraud as being widespread and calculated, while liberal-leaning voters reported less distrust in the election process, though they expressed concerns about the electoral college and voter suppression.

Further study focused on conservative-leaning voters and independent voters, finding that 66 percent of conservatives and 46 percent of independents were either not very confident or not confident at all that the 2020 presidential election had been conducted fairly and accurately; only 31 percent of conservatives expressed at least some confidence in the election, while a slim majority — 51 percent — of independents did so.

Among conservatives, those expressing distrust cited concerns that fraud had taken place, that unregistered voters and/or undocumented immigrants had voted and that a perceived delay in results raised doubts about accuracy.

That lack of confidence, however, wasn’t keeping voters away from elections. Among conservatives, 38 percent said they were more likely to vote in the next election and 11 percent were “a little more likely” to vote, while 43 percent said their distrust didn’t affect the likelihood they would vote. For independents, 48 percent were either more likely or a little more likely to vote, while 39 percent said their lack of confidence didn’t affect future voting.

What did change the level of confidence was when the question was posed.

Voters surveyed before and after the election challenged the notion that distrust might keep voters away from submitting ballots. Across political views, the study found, voters expressed more trust before the election than after, when ballots were collected, counted and results were announced. Among conservatives, prior to voting, 72 percent had either a higher level of trust or expressed neither trust nor distrust in the election. After the election, that dropped to 59 percent of conservative voters expressing either a higher level of trust or neither trust nor distrust.

The study doesn’t draw this conclusion, but that switch before and after could indicate more disappointment in the results than in actual distrust of them.

Rather, the study cites unfamiliarity with the election process as contributing to a lack of confidence in election results. While most conservatives and independents claimed to know a lot or a fair amount about the election process, the study found a lack of understanding about who was involved in the process beyond local poll workers and were “hazy” on the details regarding voting requirements, how voter identity and mail-in ballots are validated, how counts are announced, how recounts are conducted and how results are certified.

“In the absence of true understanding,” the study concludes, “misinformation often fills in the gaps.”

Distrust, the study finds, was common well before the 2020 election, and considering the shift in confidence before and after elections, efforts to rebuild voters’ trust in elections ought to focus on informing and reassuring voters about the election process and the steps taken to ensure election integrity and accuracy.

Toward that end, the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office and its elections division offers election observer opportunities today and Wednesday, including ballot envelope opening at 8:30 a.m. and signature verification and ballot scanning and adjudication at 9 a.m. For more information and details, call the elections office at 425-388-3444.

So, here’s the challenge: Do vote in today’s primary, and if you have doubts about how your ballot is handled, go to the elections office and watch and familiarize yourself with the process.

No more guilt, but if you don’t vote, we’ll send Sarah McLachland to your house — with a sad-eyed dog — to sing “In the Arms of an Angel.”

Last-minute voting tips

For more information about the races on your ballot consult these resources:

A summary of the races was published in Saturday’s Herald and is available online, and a recap of the editorial board’s endorsements is available at tinyurl.com/HeraldEndose23Primary.

In addition to these recommendations, voters also are directed to their local voters pamphlet — also mailed to registered voters — the state’s online voters guide at www.vote.wa.gov and a series of recorded candidate forums available at the website of the Snohomish County League of Women Voters at lwvsnoho.org/candidate_forums.

Ballots can be mailed or placed in one of several county election office drop boxes. Ballots must be postmarked or placed in a drop box before 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1. A list of locations for official drop boxes is available at tinyurl.com/SnoCoElexBox. More information on voting, registering to vote and the primary and general elections is available at tinyurl.com/ElexSnoCo.

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