At least in Washington state, state and county lawmakers and officials have gone about as far as they can go to encourage voters to participate in elections.
Since a change in state law in 2011, all voters receive a ballot by mail that can be mailed back or dropped off, saving each voter a trip to a polling place. And those ballots no longer require postage.
Those eligible can register to vote or renew registrations in person, by mail or online. A new state law — and the state’s new centralized voter registration system, VoteWA — allows registration, renewals and same-day voting up to election day at county elections offices.
And those between 16 and 18 can register to vote in advance of their 18th birthday at state Department of Licensing offices when they apply for a learner’s permit or driver’s license. Those teens also are invited to pre-register during special events in their schools each Jan. 16, known as Temperance Day or Good Citizen Day. They are then set to vote on the first election after their 18th birthday.
While a few county election offices in the state expressed concerns about potential software and equipment failures during the official launch of the state’s new registration system, VoteWA had it first real test during last week’s primary election with no significant reports of problems, The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported last week.
But as the old saw goes about horses and water; you can send voters their ballots, but you can’t make them vote.
Primary election turnout — particularly during odd-year elections where there are no legislative, congressional or presidential races — has seen low returns historically. That has improved, but only by about a single percentage point with each election.
Starting with the off-year primary in 2011, where 25.8 percent of registered voters returned ballots, participation dropped to 21.9 percent in 2013, but then built slowly to 22.9 percent in 2015 and 23.9 percent in 2017.
In the Aug. 6 primary — with the latest encouragements to register, renew and vote — turnout continued its slow climb with 115,039 ballots cast among 473,447 registered voters in the county, 24.3 percent. Statewide, voter turnout is about 29 percent.
To be fair, because of how primary elections work, some voters in the county saw only the county executive race on their ballots, and that “race” had only the incumbent’s name listed; County Executive Dave Somers drew no challengers this year.
Yet many voters were being asked to set the November ballot for school districts, a port district, city councils and mayoral elections.
National and statewide races, particularly in even-year elections, or when high-profile ballot initiatives — such as state voters will see this fall with Tim Eyman’s I-976 “car tab” measure — help to boost returns. Turnout in Snohomish County was over 70 percent for last November’s election with congressional midterms and initiatives on the ballot, and turnout was nearly 79 percent for the 2016 presidential election.
There are a few more tweaks that might help boost turnout for all elections, as Cornfield pointed out:
State lawmakers could eliminate special election dates in February and April, when school districts, fire districts and others run their levy and bond elections, pushing those decisions either to the primary or general election dates.
Or the primary date could be moved earlier than its current August date, although state lawmakers aren’t likely to fiddle with a schedule that maximizes the ability to raise campaign funds.
But with recent changes to election law to improve ease of registration and voting, the greatest responsibility falls now on the voters themselves to mark their ballots and get them in the mail or drop box.
Primary elections may seem to some voters to be the pre-season of their civic responsibility, less deserving of their time and attention because the “game” doesn’t count in the standings. Except that it does.
Consider the Snohomish County Council’s Second District contest in last week’s primary: Those voters who did cast a ballot will have determined which two candidates — out of a whopping eight who ran — will appear on the November ballot. Turnout in that district was slightly higher at 27 percent; still low when considering voters had their pick of eight qualified candidates.
Put another way: About 1 in 4 registered voters in that district decided who will be on the November ballot; about 3 of 4 missed their chance to weigh in.
Now, pretend you’re Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll and ask yourself if the election “pre-season” counts.