Election's offerings stimulate voters

Officials predict, and candidates work for, high turnout

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Nov. 6 general election

• VOTE BY MAIL: Your ballot must be postmarked no later than Tuesday.

• DROP BOXES: Your ballot must be deposited in an official ballot drop box by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day. For times and locations, visit http://clarkvotes.org.

• VOTERS GUIDE: Online at http://vote.wa.gov.

SOURCE: vote.wa.gov

In 2008, a record proportion of Washingtonians voted in the general election, many excited to cast a historic vote for the nation's first African-American president.

Though that isn't part of the political narrative in 2012, there's still plenty for voters to be enthusiastic about this year, pundits say.

Washington voters on Tuesday are poised to be the first in the nation to approve same-sex marriage, and could be the first to legalize recreational marijuana use.

The presidential race is close. There's also a tight race for governor, and a competitive race in Clark County's 17th Legislative District has cost the candidates nearly $700,000 combined.

"Having competitive races on the ballot tends to increase voter turnout," said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University in Pullman. But this year, "It seems to be the ballot measures that might have more of an impact. We've got at least a couple ballot measures concerning social issues," which tend to be more emotional for voters, he added.

Either way, both major political parties hope their last-minute efforts to ramp up voter enthusiasm will sway election results in their favor.

Washington Democrats got a boost in the 2008 election, because many Democrats who don't normally vote were enthralled by Barack Obama -- especially as the nation faced financial collapse, Ridout said. As those voters filled out ballots, Democratic candidates listed farther down the ballot reaped the rewards.

Democratic political consultant John Wyble says that if Obama gains momentum in the final days of his campaign, that could again help Democrats across the state and county.

Wyble, who has worked for the past 25 years on Democratic legislative campaigns, painted a rosy picture for Obama and Washington state Democrats on Friday. A majority of Washington voters are expected to vote for Obama in this election, according to polls.

"There's a general sense that Obama's going to win this thing, and that's helpful to us to demoralize the Republican base," he said by phone, adding that some Republicans might think: "My guy's not going to win, so why bother?"

The tone was much different at a Republican rally in Vancouver on Friday in which U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, outlined a path to victory for Obama's political foe, Republican Mitt Romney.

"As of two days ago, 31 polls or surveys had been done nationally," she said. "Romney led in 19 of those 31 polls. The president led in seven and they were tied in five. That's huge. For a sitting incumbent president to be below the Republican challenger means this could break our way. It's really going to come down to whether we get every vote turned in."

Both parties are calling voters and going door-to-door to make sure people return their ballots. Many statewide candidates have spent their final campaign days driving around Washington, stopping at numerous get-out-the-vote rallies. Democrats are reminding people to vote in all the races on their ballots.

Turnout projections

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said the elections department predicts a roughly 81 to 83 percent voter turnout in this year's general election, although there isn't a sure science behind that prediction, he said. Officials make their predictions after studying similar past elections, and after trying to gauge current voter enthusiasm, he said.

In 2008, Clark County officials predicted a voter turnout of 85 percent. That prediction was based partly on a theory of enthusiasm about Obama, Kimsey said. County voters turned out at an 85.3 percent rate.

Washington's Secretary of State, Sam Reed, predicted a 81 percent turnout statewide in this year's general election. Voter turnout statewide in 2008 was a record 84.6 percent.

An 81 percent voter turnout is still higher than usual, Reed said when making his prediction in mid-October.

"The thing that drives turnout is whether you have compelling races and ballot measures that people care about," Reed said last month. "Our ballot measures seem custom-made for driving up turnout this year. We are voting on same-sex marriage, decriminalizing marijuana, authorizing charter schools, and deciding whether to require two-thirds super majorities to pass taxes in Olympia."

On Saturday, more than 48 percent of registered voters in Clark County had returned their ballots to the elections department. By the Saturday before Election Day 2008, 54 percent of the county's registered voters had returned ballots.

Historically, Republicans vote at a higher rate than Democrats, Ridout and Wyble said. That's partially because Republicans tend to be older, and older people are more likely to vote, Wyble said.

When voter turnout is expected to be higher than usual, that's "very good for Democrats," Wyble said.

Wyble also said that although tight races can increase turnout, they can turn some people off from voting if those campaigns become too negative.

Election choices

Registered voters in Clark County -- more than 242,000 in all -- each received an ample ballot this fall, giving them plenty of decisions to make.

Most voters in the county will get to vote on one part of the controversial Columbia River Crossing project: light rail.

A sales tax increase on the ballot would pay for light rail operations in Vancouver. It would raise sales taxes in the C-Tran district by 0.1 percentage point (a one cent increase for every $10 spent). Some elected officials are calling the vote a barometer on whether Clark County citizens want a light rail line to extend across the river from Portland.

Other elected officials say it's simply a question of how Clark County wants to pay for light rail.

Clark County voters will get to decide in two high-stakes county commissioner races. Wealthy businessman and outspoken CRC critic David Madore, a Republican, is taking on Commissioner Marc Boldt, also a Republican, who seeks election to a third term. Meanwhile, Democrat Joe Tanner is challenging Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke, who seeks a second term.

Senate and both House seats in the 49th, 17th or 18th districts are on many ballots in Clark County.

The price tag on the 17th District Senate race between state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, has topped $1.1 million. That includes the nearly $700,000 the campaigns themselves spent, as well as money spent by independent groups.

Rather than seek a third House term, Probst decided to run for the Senate job Benton's had since 1996. Their race is being watched closely by both major political parties because Republicans have said they think they can tip the 27-22 Democratic controlled Senate in their favor.

In the 14th District, which covers a portion of far-eastern Clark County, popular Republican incumbent legislators face little-known challengers. The 20th District, which covers a northern portion of Clark County, has no Democrats on the ballot, thanks to Washington's top two primary system.

In the Position 1 House race in the 18th District, there's also no Democratic candidate. Republicans Brandon Vick and Adrian Cortes are battling over an open seat.

Vancouver voters will choose whether to create a metropolitan parks district through a property tax increase. Proponents say the district would stabilize funding for the city's parks. A Yacolt ballot measure would enact a one-year property tax to help pay for the town's operations costs.

Clark County voters also will help decide whether to keep first-term U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, for another two years. She is running against Democrat Jon Haugen, a commercial airline pilot from Vancouver.

Ballots were mailed to registered voters in Clark County on Oct. 15 and must be postmarked by Tuesday.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.