Tuesday's election may have a full ballot, but will turnout be tepid?

Odd-year vote, confusion over freeholders and advisory votes likely to deter voters

By Erik Hidle and Stephanie Rice

Published:

 

Turn in your ballot

• Ballots must be postmarked no later than Tuesday.

• Ballots may be dropped off by 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Clark County Elections Office, 1408 Franklin St., or at a drive-up red ballot collection box one block east of the office.

• On Tuesday, there will be ballot drop-off locations at select schools and churches. For a list, go to http://clarkvotes... or see page 28 in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

• Any other questions? Call the county elections office at 360-397-2345 or e-mail elections@clark.w...

Need to catch up?

• The Columbian’s 2013 election articles and editorial endorsements are compiled at

www.columbian.com/news/politics/election.

Election night

• Results will be posted on www.columbian.com and www.clarkvotes.org.

• CVTV will start broadcasting at 8:30 p.m. from Clark College’s Gaiser Hall on Comcast Ch. 23 and live stream on www.cvtv.org.

Tuesday’s ballot has more names than ever — many of which won’t ring a bell with voters.

There are 110 candidates for 15 nonpartisan freeholder seats, in addition to dozens of people running for seats on nonpartisan city councils, school boards and fire districts. But a big ballot doesn’t guarantee a big turnout, particularly not here.

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey predicts 42 percent of registered voters will participate in the general election, which he said will cost an estimated $493,000, approximately $50,000 more than other odd-year elections. Those costs cover printing and mailing ballots, hiring 90 temporary employees and combining the local voters guide with the statewide Voters’ Pamphlet. Clark is one of only about 10 counties that still produce a printed local voters pamphlet, Kimsey said, and that alone costs $90,000.

As of Friday, 16 percent of ballots had been returned.

First results will be announced by 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Of all types of general elections — presidential, midterm and odd year — the odd-year elections attract the fewest voters.

And among Washington’s 39 counties, Clark’s turnout typically ranks below average. Kimsey has theorized that voters here are so disengaged because the 50,000 to 60,000 people who work in Oregon may feel less connected to Washington politics. Also, Portland media rarely report on Clark County elections.

This year, confusion over freeholders and the “how many toll-free bridges do you want over the Columbia River” questions put forth by the Clark County commissioners — even though they don’t control what bridges will or won’t get built — may turn off even more voters, Kimsey said.

He called advisory votes on issues local officials don’t control “uncharted territory,” and anticipates many voters will skip the freeholder contests.

“There will be huge undervotes in those races,” he predicted.

Local races, little interest

Statewide, turnout of registered voters between 1980 and 2012 averaged 51 percent in odd-year elections, substantially lower than in presidential election years (which averaged 79 percent turnout) and midterm election years (62 percent turnout), according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Kimsey, who won his first four-year term in 1998, has seen local turnout in odd-numbered election years average 43 percent during his time overseeing elections.

How to get people more engaged in local government has been a difficult question to answer, Kimsey said. Voter participation is in inverse proportion to how much impact they can have on a race, Kimsey said.

“Cemetery districts, school districts and city councils directly impact people’s lives,” Kimsey said. “Certainly, the federal government does as well, but on a much different scale.”

To put “voter turnout” in a better perspective, people need to remember it only refers to the percentage of registered voters who cast votes.

Determining how many people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered takes some guesswork.

Clark County has 246,857 active voters — as of last week; that number changes daily — and a total population, according to the 2012 Census, of 438,287. That figure includes children younger than 18, who make up 23 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With those estimates, that means only about 70 percent of eligible adults in Clark County are even registered to vote.

Two ideas aimed at increasing participation among younger voters failed in the state Legislature last session, but will be reintroduced next year, Kimsey said. They would have allowed 16-year-olds to preregister to vote when they get their driver’s licenses and mandating public colleges and universities have a ballot drop box.

When someone has voted once, they are far more likely to do it again, Kimsey said.

Even though no Ds or Rs appear after the names on Tuesday’s ballot, both Mike Heywood, the local Democratic Party chairman, and Clark County GOP Chairwoman Lynda Wilson said they have volunteers working to get people to vote.

Heated Vancouver races

So what’s at stake on Tuesday?

The hottest race, arguably, pits Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt against challenger Bill Turlay, who was elected to the city council in 2011.

Leavitt has raised nearly $100,000 as of Oct. 30 in his effort to win a second term, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission, but has been targeted by conservatives for his flip-flop on bridge tolls. When he defeated Mayor Royce Pollard in 2009, Leavitt campaigned against tolls. After he took office, he too easily gave up on fighting them, said Turlay, who has raised nearly $25,000, according to the PDC.

Each candidate has a political committee — Forward Vancouver for Leavitt and Vancouver Vitality for Turlay — running attack ads on TV. While Vancouver Vitality’s ads paint Leavitt as untrustworthy, Forward Vancouver’s ad emphasizes Turlay as a Tea Party candidate with political ties to Clark County Commissioner David Madore and state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Even though council races are nonpartisan, the Clark County GOP has endorsed a slate of Turlay, Councilor Jeanne Stewart, Micheline Doan and Frank Decker. County Democrats, after saying they wouldn’t make endorsements before the August primary, gave thumbs-up to Leavitt, Alishia Topper and Anne McEnerny-Ogle.

Stewart faces Topper, while Doan is challenging Councilor Jack Burkman and Decker’s running against McEnerny-Ogle.

The Vancouver City Council has three seats on the C-Tran Board of Directors, but they must vote according to the wishes of the majority of the city council. Depending on Tuesday’s outcome, the city’s C-Tran representatives could withdraw their support for the Columbia River Crossing project.

Countywide votes

When the election settles, voters will have assembled a board of nonpartisan freeholders who will work to draft a charter for a new county government. The Clark County GOP decided not to endorse a slate of candidates because, as noted on its website (http://www.clarkrepublicans.org), members couldn’t reach agreement on key charter issues.

The Clark County Democrats have endorsed a slate of candidates at http://www.bluedonkeys.com.

The 15 freeholders will have the power to propose changes to the county government, as long as it follows the laws of the state and abides by the U.S. Constitution.

Looking at the results of a survey of freeholder candidates by The Columbian, most candidates approve of offering the powers of initiative and referendum to county residents, and also wish to see the board of commissioners expanded to more than three members.

Another oft-discussed topic, that of creating a county executive position, appears to be undecided among freeholder candidates.

Other topics include removing partisanship from positions, changing what positions are elected, and altering commissioner elections to take place only within districts, as opposed to countywide.

County voters will have an opportunity to vote on the freeholders’ proposed charter.

Commissioners have requested the freeholders expedite their meetings to prepare a charter for county vote in the 2014 November general election.

Still, the process could take more than two years to complete. A charter has been turned down by voters three times, most recently in 2002, when it failed by 187 votes.

Voters will also get a say in five advisory votes that may indicate county opinion on transportation issues, but in practice won’t change anything.

Of the six nonbinding votes Clark County commissioners put on the ballot, only one concerns a matter the board has direct control over: firework rules and limitations.

The other votes regard light-rail funding, bus rapid transit and bridge options over the Columbia River, all of which are issues where commissioners have limited or no authority.

The light-rail and bus rapid transit issues are under the commissioners’ auspice as members of the C-Tran Board of Directors. While they are only three of the nine voting members on the board, they do have bloc veto power.

As for the bridge options, county governments don’t have the authority to start planning or working on a state-to-state infrastructure project that spans a federal waterway.