Voter turnout for this November’s election was the lowest on record for a general election in Washington state history, according to a Seattle Times analysis of election data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Nearly two-thirds of registered voters did not turn in ballots, leaving turnout at less than 37 percent, the lowest recorded since reliable voter registration counts began in 1936. That continues a trend for odd-year elections observed since 2015, when voter turnout first fell below 40 percent.
State law requires that city and local district elections are held in odd-numbered years. Federal and state races occur in even-numbered years. Buoyed by the lackluster turnout for this latest election, some state lawmakers are trying to revive a bill that would let cities have their elections in even years.
The absence of statewide ballot measures this year may be connected to the drop in voter turnout, said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University and longtime observer of state politics.
Initiatives and referendums drive turnout, Donovan explained. But the elevated costs of getting measures on the ballot have made them increasingly rare.
November’s vote was the first odd-year general election without a statewide referendum, initiative or advisory vote on the ballot in decades, Donovan said. “We used to regularly have one, two or a few of those on odd-year ballots, but not since 2019.”
Turnout for the 2023 general election was more than 40 percentage points lower than in 2022’s general election, when congressional races were on the ballot. Compared with the 2020 presidential election, which logged one of the highest voter turnouts in state history, voter participation had fallen 50 percentage points.
In five counties, including Pierce, voter turnout fell by more than half compared with the 2022 midterm election.
Collectively, 50 percent of the state’s registered voters reside in the Puget Sound counties of King, Snohomish and Pierce.
In King County, home to 30 percent of the state’s voters, turnout dropped by more than 40 percentage points compared with 2022.
Beyond the Sound, Clark and Skamania counties in Southwest Washington saw the greatest drops in voter participation, followed by Pend Oreille County.
Still, while voter participation rates across the state were in a downward slump, turnout actually increased compared with the previous odd-year general election in several counties.
Spokane County, with the largest electorate outside the Puget Sound region, recorded the highest increase in voter participation compared with 2021.
The League of Women Voters of Washington agreed voter turnout this year “is not up to par.”
Washington state’s all-mail elections are safe and secure, and it’s remarkably easy to vote, said Mary Coltrane, president of the league. But many voters think their vote doesn’t matter or doesn’t count, or is otherwise not worth the effort.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.
“From future eligible voters to those returning to their communities after incarceration to voters whose first language isn’t English and everyone in between — you have the power to choose who runs your government and your vote could be the decider,” Coltrane said, emphasizing that tight races, like the Seattle City Council elections this year, are not uncommon.