OLYMPIA — The state primary election voter turnout was the highest in decades, setting the stage for a potential record-breaking turnout in November.
Clallam County’s turnout also was the highest in decades, with 60.33 percent as of Wednesday and another ballot count planned today. It is the highest primary election turnout in the county since record-keeping began in 1974, said Damon Townsend, acting elections manager.
In Jefferson County, which traditionally has a high voter turnout, it was 68.87 percent as of Wednesday, the last count of ballots from the Aug. 4 primary election before the final count on certification day of possibly 143 challenged ballots. In the 2008 primary, the turnout was 64.01 percent and in the 2018 primary, the turnout was 60.28 percent.
The statewide primary on Aug. 4 was at its highest turnout in more than five decades, with 55 percent of the state’s 4.6 million voters returning ballots for last week’s election.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, said the high turnout indicates a heightened level of fear among voters in both parties.
“I think the level of concern — because of polarization and because of the COVID economic crisis the country is in — is going to drive record levels of engagement across the nation,” he said.
The final turnout number won’t be known until next week, after county canvassing boards have reviewed any ballots that have been challenged over issues like signatures or postmarks.
As of Wednesday, current statewide turnout based on the number of ballots processed to date was more than 53 percent, with about 40,000 ballots left to process. The numbers are updated on the Secretary of State’s website at sos.wa.gov by 5:30 p.m. each day.
Statewide primary voter turnout is usually low, and turnout in 2016 was just under 35 percent. But Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman still had advised counties to plan for turnout that could potentially exceed 60 percent.
Wyman said that between the nearly 50 percent turnout for the presidential primary in March and the fact that so many people are home due to COVID-19, she knew this would not be a normal primary turnout. And she’s expecting the same for November, saying counties should be prepared for a potential turnout of up to 90 percent.
“This election cycle is going to have a very engaged electorate and certainly this primary is holding true to that,” she said.
In Clallam County, prior primary elections have at most reached the mid-50-percent range, Townsend said.
He said if he were to broach an opinion as to why this election drew a large number of voters, he pointed to 2020 being a presidential election year and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has kept people home-bound.
The last time the state’s primary turnout topped 50 percent was in 1964, when 56 percent of the state’s 1.5 million voters cast a ballot.
A lot has changed in the state since then, aside from the size of the state’s population and number of registered voters: the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971; starting in 1991, any registered voter could apply to vote by absentee ballot; and in 2005, counties were given the option of conducting elections entirely by mail, with more than two-thirds doing so.
By 2011, all 39 counties in Washington were conducting all-mail elections.
In 2008, when Democratic President Barack Obama was seeking his first term, the state saw a record turnout of 84.6 percent in that general election, while primary turnout earlier that year was just 42.6 percent.
Independent pollster Stuart Elway said it’s possible the November turnout could top 2008, but he said the high primary turnout doesn’t necessarily guarantee it, since it may just reflect general election voters who normally skip the primaries choosing to participate this year.
“Who are the people who are going to vote in the general who didn’t vote in the primary? That’s the question,” Elway said, noting that how voters feel about Republican President Donald Trump will ultimately drive the enthusiasm of both Republican and Democratic voters heading into November.
“All politics is national now,” he said.