by Hanna Brooks Olsen
Low voter turnout in District 2 is a matter of systemic barriers, historical tactics, and unrealistic expectations
There is a perception that folks in the South End simply don’t vote. A confluence of income level, race, age, housing, immigration status, and language barriers — Seattle’s second district combines almost every factor that decades of research have linked to low turnout.
It’s the reason that white candidates historically attempted little outreach in immigrant communities below the I-90 interchange, the reason that candidates of color have been so few and far between. It’s been the subject of much hand-wringing and brainstorming. It’s a perception that a lot of onlookers thought might change in the 2016 mayoral election.
It’s also a perception that, for a long time, has been rooted in fact. In a map of voter turnout in the 2016 Presidential election, most of Seattle posted high numbers—aside from a small swatch downtown, one just north of Lake Union, and much of District 2. Even in years like 2014 and 2015, with low turnout all over the city, the South End still managed to be even lower.
But as the demographic of the city continues to move and shift, and as more people find themselves paying attention to City Hall’s affairs, it’s possible that the tide is changing.
Disproving the Apathy Argument
There are a handful of known facts about voter turnout. First, more right-leaning and centrist folks, as well as those with money, just tend to vote earlier and more often.
Young people, Black and Brown people, renters, poor folks, and those with lower levels of education tend to vote later and less often. Presidential years get the highest turnout—80 percent or more—while off-years tend to come in at the 30 to 40 percent range.
Often, low voter turnout is attributed to “apathy” or a general lack of interest. Facebook threads rate candidates on how “exciting” they are.
Way back in 2012, then-Executive Director of the Washington Bus Toby Crittenden explained that systemic barriers, not “a mystical enthusiasm gap,” were what kept younger people from turning out to vote as often as Boomers.
“…it takes more effort to reach young voters. We young folks move an average of once every three years, so we need to update our voter registration more often. Even when we’re good voters, we don’t show up as “regular” in campaign lingo until we’re out of our mid-20’s. We avoid TV (and hence campaign ads) in favor of Hulu, and we screen calls coming in to our cell phones.”
Many of the same elements of the voting and registration process impact lower-income communities, communities that are dominated by renters, and communities that new Americans call home.
In this year’s August primary, when a surge of excitement and momentum from the South End carried Nikkita Oliver within striking distance of the top two, turnout was still lower in District 2 than elsewhere in the city.
“While campaigns like Oliver’s can certainly turn out hundreds of infrequent voters or more, those are often just a drop in the bucket,” Ben Anderstone wrote for Crosscut. “The total vote count in Seattle’s primary this year is approaching 190,000.”
The 2017 August primary saw higher turnout than previous years with similar races—the last time Seattleites voted for mayor, in 2013, just about 35 percent of voters cast a ballot. This year, a little over 40 percent did so. But the city is growing by at least 3 percent per year and that ballot had more than 20 candidates on it.
“Turnout increases were actually lower in areas where Oliver performed well,” concludes Anderstone. Which means that while Oliver may have brought some folks into the fold who don’t normally vote, it’s not enough for a candidate to be “exciting.”
Instead, to increase voter turnout, real, systemic barriers have to be addressed.
Renters, young people, and lower-income folks are still being dwarfed in the total electorate, and the largest year-over-year gains consistently come from wealthier, older, whiter neighborhoods and groups. Which means that it’s not just apathy which keeps residents of South Seattle from casting a ballot—it’s technical, tangible things, like where they can go, whether they’re registered, and what local election outreach looks like.
Real Barriers, Real Differences
The age-old tools of campaign outreach—mailers, phone calls, and even door-knocking—are hard to scale for communities with numerous languages, secure apartment buildings, and schedules that don’t fall within the nine-to-five white collar standard. And for a long time, consultants, candidates, and party operatives have been reticent to make adjustments. If a race is a sure thing, or even likely, it’s easier to go after the reliable long-time voters than to seek out new ones.
It’s not that people don’t want to vote, it’s that a lot of the methods of outreach only reach a small subset of the population—and in a lot of ways, that subset doesn’t overlap with Seattle’s South End neighborhoods.
According to data from the state, in the 2016 Presidential election, more than half a million voters—519,400, to be exact—used a ballot box. That’s almost 400,000 more than voted in the 2015 midterm. Which tells us two things: first, that people vote when there’s something that feels big at stake, and second, that they vote using ballot boxes.
But South King County didn’t have convenient, permanent ballot boxes for years. In fact, during the first election cycle when districts determined City Council seats, wherein every single one was up for grabs, District 2 did not have a single full-time ballot box.
King County Elections has since dropped dozens more boxes throughout the region, including several in the South End and 10 just before the August primary. But ballot box use takes time and practice; having a permanent ballot box in your neighborhood is daily reminder that voting is important and that it happens, and it may take some time for usage to pick up.
Numbers from the November 2016 election show that the most commonly-used ballot boxes are the ones that have become community staples, like in Ballard, and downtown. Similarly, in the August primary, voters still preferred to mail in their ballots—though it could be because they’d already done it by the time the new boxes came online.
King County Elections has also been working on doing outreach in more languages to reach more voters. They’re also upping their social media presence to remind folks of when to register and vote, in addition to sharing links to relevant information.
Still, much of the outreach also falls to the candidates—and historically, those candidates have not had a lot in common with voters in South Seattle.
Because whiteness is generally viewed as the neutral, it’s easy for white pundits to gloss over the fact that the demographic with the highest voter turnout closely mirrors the demographic of most elected officials.
Wealthy white people vote. Wealthy white people also typically run for office. That is not a coincidence.
A 2014 study conducted by the Pew Institute found that although the population of the United States at the time was 51 percent male and 66 percent white, nationally, candidates were 75 percent male and 82 percent white. Just five percent of candidates were Black, despite Black folks making up 12 percent of the population.
Representation makes a difference in voter turnout. This is true on a local scale and a national scale, as well; Black voter turnout was strong in 2012, but dipped in the 2016 Presidential election. In fact, total voter turnout in 2016 was lower than in 2012, due largely in part to the rhetoric of being an unexciting race, and the feeling of many voters that neither candidate represented them.
Part of the gap has to do with historic wealth—running for office is really expensive—and part of it has to do with connections to the inner workings of the political machine. Either way, locally, it’s meant that the voting class and the candidate class has, for many years, been essentially the same pool of people. The members of legislative districts and party groups looked similar, had similar life experience, and as a result, touched all the same voters, year after year.
For a long time, this worked in the favor of candidates for city- and county-wide positions; candidates didn’t need to even visit the South End, the far north, or the University District if they knew they had enough support from the usual voters.
Now, though, both the demographic and the expectations of Seattle voters are changing. The shift to district elections changed the makeup of the City Council and made running for office a lot more feasible.
There’s been a ripple effect there, as voters have come to expect a more diverse group of candidates. It explains the crowd of more than 20 hopefuls for mayor, and it also explains some of the excitement around a candidate like Oliver. Not only did her campaign represent a new narrative, she also came from a neighborhood that had largely felt left out of the conversation, even when councilmembers like Bruce Harrell have lived there for years.
Coming from a neighborhood means a lot to the voters there, says Tammy Morales, a community organizer who ran for the District 2 City Council seat in 2015.
“Everybody wants the candidate to be from their neighborhood and know everything about their neighborhood,” she explains.
But this expectation—that a candidate can cover every issue in every neighborhood with every group—is unrealistic for many, especially those who are still working a full-time job while running, and can lead to a feeling of allegiance to one candidate, rather than a broader narrative of democracy.
It’s also the other side of a larger cultural issue surrounding voting and democracy—the voting body expects at once too much and nothing from its candidates. We expect lawmakers to single-handedly change everything we don’t like, and when they can’t, we retreat into cynicism.
A 2017 survey of voters who didn’t turn out in 2016 found that among the ones who were registered but did not vote, one of the biggest reasons was because they didn’t feel that voting would make a difference. Another reason was because they didn’t feel informed enough about the issues.
Morales, who supported Oliver in the primary but has helped out with Cary Moon’s campaign since then, says she’s concerned that South End voters who were passionate about Oliver won’t show up in November. She says she hopes they will, if only to show that South End voters do care about issues and do want to be included in the future of the city.
“The way they influence [politics] is by continuing to participate in the process,” she says. “You have to continue to show up, to be counted.”
Increasing voter turnout in the South End—and in all of Seattle—will require a multi-pronged effort from many stakeholders. Voter outreach in diverse areas and among often overlooked constituents will be paramount for candidates in the future, while elections officials must continue to look for ways to touch groups which have previously felt disconnected from the process. And citizens must strive to educate themselves and their peers with accurate, culturally-relevant information that can help determine what a candidate can do, what they want to do, and whether or not they can get it done.
There is no singular cure for low voter participation—not in District 2 and not anywhere. No one candidate, campaign, or law can engage the voters the way they need to be engaged, just an no one single barrier or trait is keeping them from the polls.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.
Featured image is a Wiki Commons photo of Seattle’s District 2