In Our View: Puzzling Non-Choice

'Under-votes' in local election are difficult to understand

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Why would any voter choose to participate in only part of an election? We’re not sure, but that’s the choice made by more than 32,000 Clark County voters who decided not to vote in the county commissioner race between newcomer victor David Madore and ousted incumbent Marc Boldt. That’s 18 percent of participating voters declining to exercise their cherished right to participate in a crucial local race.

For sure, those nonvoters certainly have that right to abstain. The conventional wisdom is that many of these “under-votes” belonged to Democrats who decided not to vote in this countywide battle between two Republicans. But when you remember that this race determined who would occupy one of the three most powerful political positions in Clark County, it would seem that every voter could distinguish one candidate as superior to the other.

Consider, too, that in the other county commissioner showdown — where Republican incumbent Tom Mielke defeated Democrat Joe Tanner — there were about 17,000 under-votes. That means more than 15,000 voters knew enough about Mielke and Tanner to vote in that race but chose not to vote in the Madore-Boldt contest. This strengthens the suspicion that — in Madore vs. Boldt — Democrats refused to make a choice.

That’s unfortunate but, again, within these voters’ rights. We wouldn’t presume that more participation would have changed the outcome, but it would have given the winner a bit more confidence while alleviating the loser’s what-might-have-been frustrations.

(For more statistical details about what happened on Nov. 6 in Clark County, visit http://www.columbian.com/election. Several maps provide interesting perspectives.)

And here’s another baffling statistic involving under-votes. About 7 percent of voters in the 17th Legislative District race between Republican incumbent state Sen. Don Benton and Democratic challenger Tim Probst chose not to express an opinion. Yes, 3,882 people who voted in other races sat this one out, which is hard to understand on two counts. First, this was the closest local race of all; Benton won by 76 votes (out of almost 56,000 total votes) after a manual recount. Second, this was the most important race in the state in terms of majority control of the state Senate. Benton’s triumph enabled Republicans to install a coalition majority control of that chamber.

Either of those two reasons seemingly would be enough for those 3,882 nonvoters to participate, especially when they were offered a choice between a Republican and a Democrat.

This was the first election in Clark County since the advent of the top two primary in which two candidates of the same party advanced from the primary. It happened twice, with Madore-Boldt and with Brandon Vick defeating fellow Republican Adrian Cortes for an 18th District state rep position (20 percent were under-votes in that race).

The greatest advantage of the top two primary is that it follows the will of the people, not the parties. Democrat-only races in Seattle are popular because Republicans feel engaged by the opportunity to vote for a moderate Democrat. That trend hasn’t surfaced yet in Clark County.

We hope the next time two candidates from the same party are pitted against each other, more voters will feel inclined to participate. Abundant evidence exists to differentiate between two choices and pick a preferred candidate. And, rest assured, you won’t be the first person to cast a hold-your-nose vote for the other party.