One of the biggest surprises of the August 2012 primary was the low voter turnout. Instead of the 46 percent turnout as our outgoing secretary of state had projected, we had a dismal 38 percent.
No one is asking what changed, comparing the counties’ performance with previous years. When we look at the trend across 2008 to 2012, we realize that it is actually quite abnormal for King, Pierce, Snohomish and the rest of the counties combined to have similar turnout rates.
In fact, King County is the tortoise, starting off with an embarrassing 35 percent in 2008 but steadily working up to 39 percent in 2012. Pierce and Snohomish counties are the hares, starting off with about 42 percent turnout in 2008 then declining to 36 percent.
The biggest shocker, however, comes from the rest of the counties combined. They start off with a commanding lead of 49 percent in 2008, maintain that lead in 2010, then suddenly plummet to 39 percent in 2012. A 10-point drop in just two years! If that were the stock market, you would have just lost a fifth of your retirement savings.
What is so different about the rest of the counties?
First, most of the counties outside King, Snohomish and Pierce did not receive a printed voter pamphlet this year.
The digital divide among cities and demographic groups – gaps in access to the Internet and digital communication – means that many Washington voters still rely upon a printed voter pamphlet to become familiar with candidates.
Second, the rest of the counties fluctuate wildly between the “important” even years and “unimportant” odd years. By contrast, King, Snohomish and Pierce counties have more consistent voter turnout numbers every year, looking more like a straight line.
A habit of mailing in your ballot every year seems to have the effect of improving voter turnout over time.
King, Snohomish and Pierce counties now account for 51 percent of the votes in Washington state (they accounted for 46 percent in 2008). It will be more important than ever to provide statewide primary resources to the rest of the counties so that the half of the voters outside these juggernaut counties still have a voice in deciding who will go to the general election and what judges we will elect.
One final note: There is a high correlation between primary and general election turnout. In fact, I can predict today that we will have 65 percent turnout in November, based on 38 percent turnout in August. I desperately want to be wrong about this.
No matter which candidate you support, our state and our democracy will be better served by more Washingtonian citizens voting. Help your neighbor register.
The deadline for online and mail-in registrations is Oct. 8. You can be the 1 percent that boosts participation in our elections.