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Washington state records worst general election turnout. Here’s how Thurston County compares

Washington state recorded its lowest ever voter turnout rate for any general election this year.

Voter turnout reached just 36.4% for the Nov. 7 general election, according to data from the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. That means more than 3 million of the state’s 4.8 million registered voters did not participate.

It was the third time in the past eight years that the state has set a new record low turnout percentage. The previous record lows were 37.1% in 2017 and 38.5% in 2015. In 2021, the last odd-year election, the data shows the state recorded 39.4% voter turnout.

Odd-year elections focus on only on local candidates and issues and see less turnout than even-year elections when state and federal matters are on the ballot. For comparison, the state recorded 63.8% voter turnout in the 2022 general election and 84.1% in the 2020 general election.

The counties with the worst general election turnout this year included Yakima County at 25.8%, Clark County at 26.7% and Franklin County at 27.7%.

For its part, Thurston County recorded 39.4% voter turnout among its 196,717 registered voters, making it 22nd out of 39 counties on the list from lowest to highest turnout.

Notably, the populous Pierce and King counties had lower turnout than Thurston County. Pierce County ranked seventh for lowest turnout with 30.4% while King County ranked 20th with 37.3%.

Columbia County saw the highest turnout at 55.9% and it was followed by Whatcom County at 51.3%.

Thurston County’s Canvassing Board certified the Nov. 7 general election results on Tuesday. During the meeting, Auditor Mary Hall spoke about the county’s voter turnout rate.

“That doesn’t seem like high turnout for this election at almost 40%, but it actually is very good turnout for an odd-year election,” Hall said.

In 2021, the most recent odd-number election year, Thurston County’s turnout reached 38.2%, according to final certified results. The county saw 44.3% turnout in 2019 and 34.3% in 2017.

When reached for comment Thursday, Hall said she thinks the issues on Thurston County’s ballot this year motivated people to vote.

Specifically, she said the new Thurston County and Port of Olympia commissioner positions as well as Proposition 1, the so-called Public Safety Tax, proved to be of interest.

“I think that’s what drove turnout quite a bit,” Hall said. “It was a different odd-year election. It was more than just the cities, towns and school boards like we historically have seen.”

What can be done to improve turnout?

The last six odd-year cycles represent the most of the worst turnouts Washington has ever seen, said Andrew Villeneuve, founder and executive director of Northwest Progressive Institute, in a news release.

However, Villeneuve also pointed out that the last three even-year general elections have seen either near-record turnout or decent turnout.

“The growing disparity in turnout between odd and even years is primarily due to election fatigue,” Villeneuve said. “Voters are telling us they don’t want to vote up to four times a year, every year. They want a break from electoral politics. They’d rather vote on local positions at the same time they fill state and federal ones.”

NPI is a left-wing social welfare non-profit that analyzes voter turnout data among other matters and advocates for reforms. One solution NPI is pushing is Senate Bill 5723, a new law that would allow cities and towns to switch their elections to even years if they want to.

State Senator Javier Valdez, a Democrat who represents the 46th Legislative District, introduced the bill during the 2023 legislative session. That bill remained in the Senate Rules committee and didn’t get a floor vote.

Some people have doubts about the proposal because it would increase workloads for county auditor offices and significantly lengthen ballots, The Seattle Times reported.

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs told the Times he opposes moving elections to even years because it could “drown out” local races. He said counties with small budgets might even opt to cut their election workforce.

When asked about this proposal, Hall said she would prefer to keep the current odd- and even-year arrangement for Thurston County.

“I think the consistency over time for my staff is better the way it is right now,” Hall said.

Hall said moving more matters to even years would likely require two ballot cards for each voter. She said that would create a lot more work for ballot inspectors. It also would make it more difficult to reconcile ballots to ensure there are no discrepancies.

“I think that would be harder to accomplish with two ballot cards because voters don’t always return both ballot cards,” Hall said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

While there is more voter turnout in even years, Hall said there may still be less participation in local, down-ballot races.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t think it’s going to improve because there’s again going to be fall off and voter fatigue as you get further down the ballot,” Hall said.