Clark County voter turnout for primary lowest in state

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Secretary of State's Office released tallies from all 39 counties, and Clark ranked dead last in terms of the percentage of registered voters who voted in the Aug. 7 primary.

Of 234,411 registered voters in the county, 71,882 turned in ballots, giving Clark the title of Most Apathetic with a turnout of 30.66 percent.

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey prefers the adjective "disengaged" over "apathetic" to describe voters who don't vote.

He offered a few theories Wednesday as to why turnout in primary elections is persistently low in Clark County.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 residents work in Oregon and may feel less connected to Washington politics, even though they live here, he said.

Also, Clark residents are in what Kimsey called the "Portland media shadow," and Portland TV news and radio stations rarely report on Washington elections.

He said the last-place ranking isn't uncommon, at least in primary elections. Clark also finished last in the 2008 primary; that year, the state average turnout was 42.6 percent and Clark, with a turnout of 37.9 percent, was the only county with a turnout lower than 40 percent.

In even-numbered-year primary elections, when state legislative candidates are on the ballot, Clark's turnout has ranked no higher than 35th dating to 2004.

"We are near the bottom, always," Kimsey said.

In the Aug. 7 primary, Jefferson County had the highest turnout (57.03 percent of registered voters), followed by Island (52.31 percent), San Juan (51.44 percent), Wahkiakum (51.98 percent), Pacific (50 percent) and Lincoln (48.98 percent) counties.

The state average voter turnout was 37.11 percent.

The state's most populous counties, King and Pierce, had turnouts of 36.77 percent and 36.02 percent, respectively.

Joining Clark in the cellar were Douglas (32.41 percent), Franklin (33.35 percent), Klickitat (33.86 percent), Snohomish (33.33 percent) and Yakima (32.42 percent) counties.

Kimsey expects county voters will be more engaged in November's general election; presidential elections bring out the most voters.

In the 2008 general election, for example, voter turnout in Clark County was 85.31 percent, exceeding the state average of 84.61 percent.

As another reason for Clark's low turnout, Kimsey pointed out that Oregon has its primary elections in May, and there weren't reminders on Portland news stations about Washington's Aug. 7 primary.

Since the general election falls on the same day in every state, Clark County residents are more likely to be aware of the election, Kimsey said.

Even the Portland media shadow doesn't completely explain Clark's low turnout. Other counties in the shadow include Cowlitz, which had a voter turnout of 34.67 percent, and Skamania, which had a turnout of 36.06 percent.

Kimsey said his office did receive calls from voters frustrated about the lack of a statewide voter's pamphlet. The Secretary of State's Office had the information online, and Clark County's pamphlet included information only about local races.

For the Nov. 6 general election, a joint pamphlet will be printed that will include state and local information.

The conversion to vote-by-mail doesn't seem to have affected turnout in primary and general elections, Kimsey said. It has increased participation in special elections in the spring and winter, however.

Kimsey still hears from people who complain about voting by mail. They receive their ballot, then forget about it.

"I think that is one of the valid criticisms of vote-by-mail," Kimsey said. "I can see where people can get that ballot, tuck it away, figure they will get to it later and then forget about it until after the election occurs."

And voting by mail takes the energy of an election day and diffuses it over a two-week period, he said.

On the other hand, "by putting a ballot in people's homes, it makes it pretty darn easy for people to vote," Kimsey said.

All counties in the state have vote-by-mail.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.