Let’s hope voter participation improves in November

Judging by the early returns in this week’s primary election, it seems that voters didn’t feel the same excitement about this year’s candidates as election officials were projecting. The percentage of registered voters who cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary was lagging historical averages for even-year elections.

Shame on those who didn’t make the time to express their preference for a long slate of candidates in important county, state and federal elections.

After the first count, just 23.2 percent of the 154,003 registered voters in Thurston County had submitted ballots. County Auditor Kim Wyman expects that number will reach the mid-30 percent range by the end of the week when the late mailed ballots arrive and all the drop boxes are collected.

But that’s still lower than the 42 percent who voted in the 2008 primary, the last comparable presidential election year.

That same trend is playing out across the state. After Tuesday’s initial count, just 22.1 percent of all statewide registered voters had voted. Secretary of State Sam Reed had projected a 46 percent turnout for the primary. That would have been the highest since 1980.

Dave Ammons, communications director for the SOS office, expects the statewide voter turnout to reach 40 percent by the time the primary election is certified on Aug. 24. If reached, that will fall short of the 43 percent primary average and six points below Reed’s initial projection.

Our state’s “wide open” top-two primary system does increase voter participation, especially in the primary, at least compared with other states where single-digit turnouts are common.

To drive a larger primary voter turnout, the primary could be moved into June. Kids would still be in school at that time and families would not have yet left on summer vacations.

But lawmakers are unlikely to approve a June primary. No state representative or senator can begin fundraising until the legislative session ends, and in years like this one when sessions run long, they would have no time to raise money or devote time to their campaigns.

If any change is made to the primary system, it should be to only count ballots received by election day. Washington is a postmark state, meaning that as long as a ballot carries the election date stamp from the post office, it is counted. Oregon, for example, requires ballots be in hand on election day.

But what to make of the lower-than-average primary participation in what appeared to be a politically charged presidential and gubernatorial election year?

For starters, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue around the high-profile statewide races. The top two candidates were pretty well decided in people’s minds in the races for governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and even in several of the local county and state legislative contests.

Without that intrigue – and perhaps with more interest in the races being staged at the London Olympics – there was little to engage voters.

Fortunately, that should change for the general election. There are several emotional statewide initiatives that have the potential to drive higher voter participation, including the legalization of marijuana, the affirmation of the Legislature’s same-sex marriage law and another Eyman measure to require a two-thirds vote on tax increases.

Thurston County voters will have the added hot issue of whether or not to give the Public Utility District authority to pursue taking over Puget Sound Energy’s business of providing electrical power and service.

If voters can’t get excited by Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, the ballot measures alone should help Thurston County shed its primary apathy. Let’s hope so, because everyone’s voice needs to be heard.