Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sept. 23, 2020

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Washington’s primary turnout highest since 1964

Huge increase over 2016 primary sets stage for potential to break record in November election

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Ballots sit in sorting trays Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton. (ted s.
Ballots sit in sorting trays Aug. 5 at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton. (ted s. warren/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

OLYMPIA — Washington saw its highest primary turnout in more than five decades, with 55 percent of the state’s 4.6 million voters returning ballots for last week’s election, setting the stage for a potential record-breaking turnout in November.

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, said the high turnout indicates a heightened level of fear among voters in both parties.

“I think the level of concern — because of polarization and because of the Covid economic crisis the country is in — is going to drive record levels of engagement across the nation,” he said.

The final turnout number won’t be known until next week, after county canvassing boards have reviewed any ballots that have been challenged over issues like signatures or postmarks. As of Tuesday night, current turnout based on the number of ballots processed to date was at nearly 53 percent, with about 50,000 ballots left to process.

Voter turnout in the state primary is usually low, and turnout in 2016 was just under 35 percent. But Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman had still advised counties to plan for turnout that could potentially exceed 60 percent.

Local Angle

Clark County voter turnout for the primary election currently stands at 50.58 percent, and will increase slightly by the time the last few ballots are counted and the election is certified on Tuesday. Auditor Greg Kimsey told The Columbian last week that it was the highest voter turnout he’s seen for a primary election in his 22 years in office. In 2016, local turnout for the primary was 30.62 percent.

Wyman said that between the nearly 50 percent turnout for the presidential primary in March and the fact that so many people are home due to COVID-19, she knew this would not be a normal primary turnout. And she’s expecting the same for November, saying that counties should be prepared for a potential turnout of up to 90 percent.

“This election cycle is going to have a very engaged electorate and certainly this primary is holding true to that,” she said.

The last time the state’s primary turnout had topped 50 percent was in 1964, when 56 percent of the state’s 1.5 million voters cast a ballot. A lot has changed in the state since then, aside from the size of the state’s population and number of registered voters: the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971; starting in 1991, any registered voter could apply to vote by absentee ballot; and in 2005 counties were given the option of conducting elections entirely by mail, with more than two-thirds doing so.

By 2011, all 39 counties in Washington were conducting all-mail elections.

In 2008, when Democratic President Barack Obama was seeking his first term, the state saw a record turnout of 84.6 percent in that general election, while primary turnout earlier that year was just 42.6 percent.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway said it’s possible November turnout could top 2008, but said the high primary turnout doesn’t necessarily guarantee it, since it may just reflect general election voters who normally skip the primaries choosing to participate this year.

“Who are the people who are going to vote in the general who didn’t vote in the primary, that’s the question,” Elway said, noting that how voters feel about Republican President Donald Trump will ultimately drive the enthusiasm of both Republican and Democratic voters heading into November.

“All politics is national now,” he said.