In the end, it comes back to the voters, which brings us to a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting,” the 32nd president of the United States famously said.
So, while officials throughout Washington lament the 27 percent turnout from this month’s primary election — in Clark County, turnout was less than 20 percent — and ponder ways to boost that number, we stress that the most important factor in election turnout is an engaged and confident public.
In the wake of the Aug. 1 primary, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman and others have questioned the wisdom of holding a primary election in the middle of summer. “People are on vacation,” Wyman, the state’s top elections officer, told The (Tacoma) News Tribune. “You’re going to have more engagement in voters — with voters — in June or May than you’re going to have in August.” State Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, told the newspaper: “It is almost the worst date you could think of, having an election at the height of summer when everyone is out doing other things, like hiking and Jet Skiing.”
A decade ago, the Legislature moved Washington’s primary from mid-September to early August. County elections officials had complained that the later primary left little time to finalize results, conduct any necessary recounts, and get ballots for the general election sent to military and overseas voters.
If lawmakers consider again moving the date for the primary, they have a small window to target. Because they are not allowed to raise money while in session, they likely will oppose a spring primary that comes shortly after — or during — the legislative session. If an earlier primary provided some incentive for lawmakers to do their jobs and finish their work in the allotted time, that might provide a side benefit. But it is not clear that moving the primary will achieve the main goal of increasing voter turnout.
Elections officials over the years have taken several steps designed to increase turnout, most notably adopting vote-by-mail throughout the state. While Washington voters do not face the burden of waiting in line at the polls, a disgraceful occurrence found in many other states, they still have trouble finding time to turn in ballots. In Clark County, some 48,000 voters — out of 239,000 who are registered — got to determine which candidates advanced to the general election.
It also should be noted: That number represents less than 20 percent of registered voters, not eligible voters. Many people who could vote simply don’t bother to become eligible. That reflects a larger problem that diminishes our democracy.
Surveys have indicated that a major reason for voter apathy is a lack of faith in the election system. Even before allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election, a Gallup survey found that the United States ranked 90th out of 112 countries in terms of voter confidence in election integrity. The hope was that questions about last November’s election and a tumultuous start to the Trump presidency would generate more voter engagement. While comparing an off-year primary to a presidential election is largely apples and oranges, such engagement has yet to be demonstrated.
In the end, restoring the faith of voters will be more important than the date of the state’s primary. In the end, restoring that faith is crucial to the future of our democracy.