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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Westneat: Lack of news hurts elections

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Perry Sobolik calls himself “an old newspaper junkie.” So he scours the press like a hawk for any scraps about his town, which happens to be the Seattle suburb of Kent.

“We still get some attention down here, every once in a while,” he said. “Like when somebody gets killed.”

When it comes to local politics, though, Kent, now a city of 139,000 people, is like “living in a desert.” “I’m not sure there was much awareness there was a local election being held,” Sobolik told me.

You may have seen the news that Washington state just had the lowest voter turnout for a general election in its history. Only 36.4 percent of registered voters participated — meaning more than 3 million out of 4.8 million sat it out.

Well, down in Kent they would have cheered to get 36 percent. Only 24 percent of registered voters there returned their ballots. It was the worst turnout for any city in King County.

By contrast, Seattle was at 46 percent, nearly double the turnout in Kent.

What is going on? Something seems off when a city the size of Kent holds an election and scarcely 17,000 people mail in their ballots. And in Auburn, only 9,600 voters determined who will be running that city of 89,000.

Voter turnout in these cities has been plummeting. Ten to 20 years ago it averaged 10 to 15 percentage points higher during off-year, municipal elections.

My theory — and I’m definitely biased on this one — is that it’s not you, it’s us. There’s a direct link between the collapse of the news in the South End and the lack of voter interest.

In Seattle, we still have TV stations, news radio, blogs and, most importantly, newspapers all covering local politics, at times obsessively (ahem).

Several campaigns groused to me that the media ecosystem in Seattle is so potent that there’s no way to advance anymore without getting the endorsement of either The Seattle Times or The Stranger newspapers. While that might not be exactly what the founders envisioned for democracy, it does create tension, drama, and voter interest.

In Kent, the local newspaper, the Kent Reporter, is aptly named because it literally has just one reporter. One person to cover crime, politics, features, you name it. The tiny paper doesn’t do editorial endorsements.

“He’s the entire newspaper,” Sobolik said.

That one reporter, Steve Hunter, often writes multiple stories a day and should be given a medal (though never a vacation, because then Kent would go haywire). There’s also a blog called ILoveKent, owned by hyperlocal news publisher Scott Schaefer. But the point is that politics in Kent no longer gets anywhere near the attention it used to.

Recently researchers studied 46 such cities and towns in California, where newspaper staffing had fallen sharply, and concluded that political races became less competitive while voter turnout fell.

“We found that when newspapers cut more staff, the mayoral races that followed included fewer candidates, resulted in larger victory margins for winners, and more regularly featured unchallenged incumbents,” the authors wrote.

Said one editor in that study: “It certainly would depress voter turnout, because if you don’t even know there’s an election, or you don’t know what’s at stake with the election or don’t know anything about the people running, why would you bother to vote?”

That pretty much sums up 2023, which will go down in history for disinterest.

The current proposal to help all this is to switch our odd-year city elections to even-numbered years, when the presidential, congressional and statewide races are also on the ballot.

This is a bad idea, as it would make the real source of the problem — scant info about city and local issues — worse. National and state politics will suck up all the media oxygen, so voters will hear even less about city councils and mayors than they do now.

What’s the matter with Kent and countless other cities and towns? They just need more news.

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