Falling Local Election Voter Turnout Challenges Spokane County

by Dr. Kelley Cullen

An engaged electorate is vital to ensuring that elected officials at the local, state and national levels are responsive to and reflective of the communities they serve. On the other hand, waning participation rates in elections could suggest lack of efficacy or frustration with the political process. So, the conundrum is:  How do we interpret a divergence in voter participation that is increasing in presidential and midterm elections, but decreasing in off-year elections?

One way of measuring civic involvement in a community is through voter participation rates as tracked in Spokane Trends 0.4.2 Share of Registered Voters Voting in November Elections. Using data from the Washington Secretary of State, the turn-out rate among registered voters in Spokane County as well as the state as a whole for November elections is presented.

In the most recent presidential election in 2020, four out of every five registered voters turned out to vote, which is close to the 84% statewide. For comparison, only two-thirds of all registered voters in the US turned out. Clearly Spokane County registered voters are concerned with elections of national significance, and in fact participation in presidential elections has been steadily increasing since 1996 (start of President Clinton’s second term) when it was 71%.

Turning to the mid-term elections in the even years between presidential elections when the entire US House of Representatives is up for (re-)election, we see that although voter participation across the county is below the turnout for presidential elections (most recently 73% in 2018), it has been steadily increasing since 1998 when it was only 59%.

In contrast to the increasing participation in presidential and midterm elections, participation in the odd years (off-year) elections where there is typically a dearth of state and national races on the ballot, voter turnout is significantly lower. In the most recent off-year election in 2021, voter participation for the county dipped to 37%, just under the state average of 39%. The drop in off-year voter turnout has been steep – over a 20-percentage point decline since 1997 when voter turnout was just over 60%.

So, what could explain the difference in trajectories between presidential & midterm elections (upward) and off-year elections (downward)?

First, it is important to note that this divergence of voter participation rates is not unique to Spokane County and Washington. In fact, voter turnout for local elections across the United States averaged only 27%, with some large metro areas such as Fort Worth, TX & Las Vegas, NV experiencing single digit eligible voter turnout in the most recent local election.

In studies attempting to explain low voter turnouts around the nation, barriers to voting are often offered up as explanations. Washington state in particular has been using mail-in ballots for over a decade now to reduce some of the barriers to casting one’s ballot. However, is still possible that households fail to remember to return their ballots in a timely fashion or simply misplace them prior to election day, especially when there is not as much publicity about a local election.

Another plausible explanation is that lower turnout for local elections is due to a lack of awareness of the local candidates and issues, along with a lack of understanding of the specific functions of local elected officials and their impacts on daily life. Conversely, during national and state elections, there is a plethora of advertising promoting major candidates. But during off-cycle elections, local candidates often lack the funds to engage in the same level of advertising.

In response to declining voter participation rates, some municipalities such as New York City have turned to incentives such as a lottery reward for those turning in their ballots. (This lottery incentive was also used recently to encourage Covid-19 vaccinations in Ohio.) In both cases, the initial evidence suggests an immediate uptick in voting and vaccination rates.

Ultimately, however, it is important that an electorate regularly participates in the election process, be it at the national, state or local level. With local governments around the nation distributing services and spending almost $2 trillion (roughly the same as the entire CARES Act), Spokane residents who return their ballots can help determine how those funds are distributed through the election of their local officials. With this civic participation, especially at the local level, residents should feel more engaged with the community in which they live.