The Politics Blog

Elections officials say Tuesday primary's low-low turnout is product of 'off-off year'

OlympianAugust 7, 2013 

Seattle had a pretty hot mayor’s race but most of the state had a dull primary election Tuesday. And that’s the main reason turnout was running at a dismal level – just over 20 percent on Election Day, according to state elections officials. By late Wednesday they inched up to nearly 23.1 percent and are expected to go higher as mail-in ballots come in later this week.

“It’s an off-off year. The midterms next year will be better. Then we’ll have another local government election in 2015. Then in 2016 it’ll be right back to everybody and their grandmother is interested,’’ said David Ammons, spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of State. He noted that turnout topped 81 percent in last year’s presidential election in November and should be higher again this fall.

On Tuesday, three counties had no primary and many offered little on the ballot for most voters – including an auditor’s race with only two candidates in Thurston County. Republican appointee Gary Alexander was leading Democratic challenger Mary Hall by about 5 percentage points in the county auditor’s race, and turnout was just 21.5 percent. [Update: Wednesday's count raised turnout to just over 24.5 percent; Alexander maintained roughly a 5 percentage point lead.]

In all but a few city council races, the candidates were safe to assume they are all moving to the November ballot.

Parts of Pierce County found it a little more interesting with Republican Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard challenging appointed Democratic Sen. Nathan Schlicher of Gig Harbor in the 26th district. Angel led comfortably in first-day returns and Democrats exprssed hope they'll get better turnout in November. 

King County had it even better with a mayor’s race that drew nine candidates – topped by state Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Ed Murray, who had championed the state’s legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Behind him was Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in second place followed by the rest of the field seeking the city’s top elected job. King County also had a county executive, county council and in a county parks levy that was drawing 69 percent support.

Primary turnout is often low. Even in the presidential year of 2012, Washington’s dog-days-of-August primary drew less than 38.5 percent of voters in 2012. Turnout was even weaker – 29.5 percent – in 2011, the previous off year election, and 31 percent in 2009’s off year election. 

Washington has moved the date of its primary election twice in the past decade – after the havoc of the 2004 governor’s race – to give ballot counters more time between elections. The primary is now on the first Tuesday of August when most people are thinking about vacation or driving like they are on one.

Ammons dismissed the idea that the Top Two primary, which is a runoff election, is a factor.

“The manner of voting is really not as important as the quality of campaigns or the issues. That really drives turnout, it always has and always will,” Ammons said. “This year, people are almost recovering from that over-dosage of elections and the saturation bombing of ads.”

Turnout figures are expected to rise as more vote-by-mail ballots are received and counted. But no one expects a lot – and even state elections officials were only predicting 30 percent on the optimistic side before the vote.

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