The impact of low turnout in this month’s general election put the shoe on the other foot in Thurston County. Candidates backed by Democrats did better as late-arriving ballots showed up in the mail, producing a few upsets.
“Last year was exactly the opposite. Late ballots favored the Republicans. This year they favor the more progressive candidates,” said county Auditor Mary Hall.
Low turnout amplifies the effect of voting blocs that get their people to turn in ballots. Those best organized in the Nov. 7 election were the progressives, which included many Democrats and environmentalists.
Activists’ work helped power surprisingly strong Olympia City Council victories for council appointee Clark Gilman, for newcomer Lisa Parshley, who won an open seat, and for activist Renata Rollins, who beat incumbent Jeanine Roe after trailing election night. Later-arriving ballots favored their campaigns.
Overall, turnout was dismal, hitting just over 34 percent. This was getting closer to the low end of Hall’s pre-election expectation of 35-40 percent.
Disfavored by the low turnout were the more establishment candidates — especially in Olympia where turnout is near 42 percent.
That undercut two-term Olympia council member Roe. She led Rollins on election night but the surge of late votes handed the seat decisively to Rollins.
Similarly, longtime Olympia public figure Allen Miller was routed by Lisa Parshley, a veterinarian with clinics in Olympia whose legal residency was called into question after the primary.
Max Brown, who was backed by contributors like ex-governor Chris Gregoire, lobbyists from the Capitol and realty interests, lost handily to Gilman.
Perhaps progressives, environmentalists and Democrats in Olympia and Lacey should send thank-you notes to President Trump for providing a little extra motivational boost to organize in 2017. Auditor Hall said local and state turnout often follows national trends.
No doubt this has been a lousy year for Republicans, whose party hold the U.S. House, Senate and presidency but are often at loggerheads. That might have discouraged conservative voters, just as Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 turned off many backers of Bernie Sanders.
Elsewhere, Port of Olympia commission incumbent E.J. Zita easily defeated challenger Gigi McClure, a military veteran backed in part by Republicans.
In the other port race, Bill McGregor was re-elected, but challenger Bill Fishburn drew close as late ballots were tallied. McGregor finally won with 50.75 percent of the vote.
Zita and Fishburn overcame mailings financed by timber, longshoremen, and business interests who promoted McClure and McGregor.
Then strident mailers from Olympia Master Builders attacked Zita and Fishburn as would-be threats to port business. It’s fair to wonder if the nasty-grams backfired.
In other races, Democrat-backed Carolyn Cox beat better-known Lacey City Council candidate Ken Balsley. Turnout was lower than the county average in Lacey, but Cox was more appealing to progressives worried about the population surge aimed at South Sound. Cox had served on the city planning commission, had a regional view of development and grasped that local homelessness is a regional problem.
Similarly, progressives backed Scott Clifthorne, a union organizer who put his career talents to work in getting out the vote for his Olympia School Board campaign. Clifthorne raised more money and defeated two-term incumbent Mark Campeau, although Campeau had been ahead after the first vote tally.
Low turnout had other effects. A tax levy for Lacey Fire District 3 fire station and equipment upgrades received nearly 3 of every 4 votes cast, but Lacey’s lower-than-average turnout meant it initially had too few votes cast to validate the result. Late-arriving votes now ensure its passage.
In Yelm and other jurisdictions, just a handful of votes separate winners and losers for city races. In the Yelm mayoral race, J.W. Foster led Joe DePinto by just 13 votes as of the latest count.
The county’s highest turnout — roughly 47 percent — was in the tiny town of Bucoda, where every ballot always counts. Steven Lyle was leading Michael Vanderhoof by a 12 votes for a two-year, unexpired term on the Town Council seat. In that races, just 134 votes were cast.
That, by the way is the same town that in 2015 elected firefighter Gary Givens to the Town Council — the first candidate elected by a write-in campaign in county history.
Though voting can sometimes feel like a waste of time, this election again proved again that isn’t always so.