Expensive races dominate odd-year ballot

Hot-button campaigns like I-522, 26th District seat could bring out extra voters in lean election year

bshannon@theolympian.comNovember 5, 2013 

Early voter turnout was running low in Thurston County ahead of Tuesday’s election, while state and Pierce County officials called turnout roughly typical for an election with mostly local decisions.

“When you add it all up … it looks like about half the electorate will vote and half will stay home,’’ spokesman David Ammons of the Office of the Secretary of State said Monday.

The most hotly contested races are drawing money from outside the state and setting records for Washington campaign spending. A state Senate race in Pierce and Kitsap counties has implications for control of state government, and a statewide ballot measure requiring labels for genetically engineered foods could be the first in the nation to take effect.

Results start rolling in just after the 8 p.m. voting deadline, but the first-night results might not decide the outcome of some close races.

Funded mainly by food, biotech and agricultural companies, opponents of labeling Initiative 522 have spent more than $20.1 million – a record for one side of a ballot campaign in Washington history. And, at $2.9 million, the 26th District contest between Democrat Nathan Schlicher and Republican Jan Angel is the state’s most expensive legislative race in history, costing more than the next two priciest races combined.

I-522 would require front-of-package labels on many foods that are genetically modified or have ingredients produced with genetic engineering.

Opponents have saturated television markets with ads claiming the measure is confusing, misleading and will raise food costs. Proponents funded by organic food companies and backed by consumer groups raised about $7.9 million.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans and their two Democratic allies hope to add to their narrow one-vote majority with a victory by Rep. Angel over appointee Sen. Schlicher. The balance of power could help shape the reception for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious agenda, including a transportation tax increase and new measures to curb climate change.

A billionaire environmentalist from California is helping fund independent efforts on Schlicher’s side while the retail, housing, tobacco and alcohol industries are funding spending on Angel’s behalf.

Voters are also choosing city councils, school boards, port commissioners, the mayor of Seattle and the Thurston County auditor. Gary Alexander, a longtime Republican lawmaker, was appointed auditor to fill a vacancy in January and is fending off a challenge by Democrat Mary Hall, a Lacey resident and supervisor of Pierce County elections.

Another statewide initiative – I-517 – would change the rules for the initiative process itself.

Tacoma voters are deciding on a utility tax to fund local street repairs. Residents of SeaTac are weighing a $15-an-hour minimum wage for many employees in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and Whatcom County voters are selecting county council members who eventually could decide whether to permit a coal export terminal.

As usual in Washington’s vote-by-mail system, much of the voting was already done before Tuesday – with nearly 22 percent of ballots returned through Monday in Thurston County and 23 percent in Pierce County.

Elections officials predicted a 51 percent turnout statewide and 46 percent in Pierce County. In Thurston County, there had been hopes of equaling the 53 percent turnout of 2011, but early returns were lagging and Auditor Alexander now expects a 45 percent turnout.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com

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