Seattle Children’s March youth leader Ori leads a chant on the bullhorn.

OPINION: Is Increasing Voter Turnout the Key to Progressive Victories?

by Guy Oron

If you’re a progressive or leftist like me, you were probably disappointed in the November local election results. Conservative candidates swept 3 out of the 4 Seattle races, including the all-important mayoral election by a large margin of nearly 20%.

In December, this same result was narrowly avoided in Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s recall election, with the Sawant Solidarity Campaign coming out on top by just over 300 votes. This could be in part due to the diligent efforts of volunteers who campaigned hard to get out the vote and even organized pop-up ballot printing stations to help voters who misplaced their ballots.

Many have pointed to low voter turnout as a potential cause for progressives not doing well in the local elections, despite enthusiasm and momentum for change following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. The November 2021 election turnout was indeed pretty low, at just over 55% in Seattle and only 44% across all of King County. The recall election was even worse, with a participation rate of 53.5%. In comparison, voter turnout during the 2020 general election was about 87% in Seattle and King County as a whole.

This begs the question, where did these 30–40% of voters go? Why didn’t they vote, and what could help them turn out?

Looking at the big picture, this year’s election results are very consistent with past local elections. In 2019, Seattle voter turnout was 55%, and in 2017 it was lower — at just under 50%. This suggests that the odd-year election voter turnout gap is a structural issue and not just a one-off problem.

Data from the last 13 election cycles shows three strong associations: 

  1. Voters vote more during presidential elections (and to a lesser degree congressional midterm elections) than during odd year elections. 
  2. Voters vote much more in general elections than primaries.
  3. Older voters participate at a higher rate than younger voters.

These differential voting rates pose two key problems: that of electoral legitimacy and of equity. November’s election featured a relatively limited segment of the population — only about 55% of Seattle’s 490,000 registered voters participated. This doesn’t even include eligible voters who haven’t registered or youth and noncitizens who can’t vote. Because only about half of the electorate participated, it is hard to say that the city government actually represents the other half of the city.

Secondly, the people who did vote are disproportionately older, whiter, and wealthier. According to King County Elections, only 30% of Seattle voters aged 18 to 24 voted, in comparison to over 72.5% of voters aged 65 and older who voted. Across all of King County, the divide is even starker, with only 20.4% of 18–24 year old registered voters participating while 64.1% of voters aged 65+ voted. In fact, voters over 65 made up 30% of all voters in King County, despite being just 13.5% of the population.

Bar chart representing voter turnout by age in King County elections over age groups with light blue bars representing elections in 2020 and dark blue representing elections in 2021. The light blue bars are significantly higher than dark blue bars.
Voter Turnout by Age in King County. Sourced from King County Elections.

Precinct-wide data suggests that voters in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods in Seattle voted at higher rates than those living in denser, lower-income, and more racially diverse neighborhoods. Estimates from King County Elections also show stark divides in voter registration rates. While about 15% of eligible voters aren’t registered across the whole county, 30–50% of eligible voters in neighborhoods in Federal Way, Kent, SeaTac, and Auburn aren’t registered. This is striking in comparison to more affluent and whiter neighborhoods such as Mercer Island, Laurelhurst, and Magnolia that boast voter registration rates of over 90%.

Apart from the moral issue of disproportionate representation, the voter turnout gap is also a big electoral cost to progressive and leftist candidates, whose main bases of support include young people, working class people, and Communities of Color. Election data shows that when turnout is higher, as in presidential elections, then the participation gap narrows. Thus, higher voter turnout could indeed lead to more progressive and leftist-minded voters participating.

While presidential elections are featured prominently across most media platforms and tend to generate awareness, local elections don’t get the same attention or excitement. According to Riall Johnson, principal partner at the political consulting company Prism West, part of the divide could come from a lack of funding and political education. 

This leads to a lot of voters remaining unaware or opting out from voting in local elections. “You can go to a restaurant, or go anywhere publicly, ask your clerk, ask your waiter, ask random people on the street and say, ‘Do you know there’s an election?’ and they don’t even know,” said Johnson. “[These elections are] not seen.”

Speaking about efforts against voter suppression and in favor of increasing voter turnout, Johnson cautioned to be careful about how political parties can leverage the turnout rates of different demographics of voters for political expediency. “We can definitely ask the question, would progressives and Democrats be fighting for [higher voter turnout] if it didn’t benefit them?” said Johnson. Despite the supposed neutrality or nonpartisanship of election reforms, they will always have political and partisan implications.

State Rep. Mia Gregerson tried for years to eliminate odd-numbered year elections and align local elections with federal election cycles. She has reintroduced legislation this session which would eliminate odd year elections. 

Gregerson has also cosponsored another bill, HB 1156, that would allow local municipalities to switch to ranked choice voting, which lets voters choose multiple candidates and rank them by preference. This new system would also eliminate the need for low turnout primary elections.

“I would see, over and over again, very low turnout in the August primary, and then it’d be very difficult as a progressive to actually get through the primary,” said Gregerson.

In our current system, voters choose from a slate of candidates in the primary with the top two vote-getters facing each other in the November general election. 

In a ranked choice system, the primary vote is eliminated, and voters can vote for how many of the candidates they want and rank those votes from most to least preferred. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the least amount of first-preference votes is eliminated, and their votes get redistributed to the rest of the candidates based on voters’ second preference. The process repeats until a candidate receives a majority of votes.

Ranked choice voting is also called “instant runoff voting” because it eliminates the need for a primary and runoff election, instead consolidating local candidate races, such as mayor, into a single election.

Gregerson hopes that these reforms could lead to increased voter participation. “… The more people we can get to participate in democracy, the more diverse voices we can get — regardless of your political preference — I feel like it’s a healthier society,” says Gregerson.

Ranked choice voting has already been introduced in a number of jurisdictions across the country, including Maine, San Francisco, and New York City. Fair Vote Washington, the local chapter of a nonpartisan advocacy organization, supports SHB 1156 and wants to see the state ditch its top two, first-past-the-post electoral system in favor of ranked choice voting. 

Lisa Ayrault, executive director of Fair Vote Washington, said that there would be a lot of value in combining the primary and general elections through a ranked choice electoral system. “We believe that that’s a reform that will support better turnout in our elections here in Washington,” says Ayrault.

In addition to electoral reforms such as eliminating odd year elections and implementing ranked choice voting systems, progressives can also look to expanding the electorate to include people that don’t usually get to vote. Some have called for noncitizens to be allowed to vote in local elections, a decision that New York City recently implemented. Others have advocated for the voting age to be lowered to 16, something that countries such as Brazil and Scotland have implemented for years. 

Johnson, of Prism West, believes that lowering the voting age is a constitutional obligation to young people, since they already can work and pay taxes. “If you’re old enough to work, it means you’re old enough to pay taxes, and if you pay taxes, you should be able to vote,” said Johnson. “So you got a lot of people working from 15 to 18, working and paying taxes and not able to have representation through a vote.”

These reforms could be the starting point toward alleviating structural injustices and inequities in the electoral system and make local democracy more democratic. However, they are not the only ways to increase voter turnout. The Kshama Solidarity Campaign’s energetic get-out-the-vote effort in the recent December recall election showed that investing resources and volunteer hours can be just as important.

Increasing voter turnout won’t guarantee leftists and progressives victory, but creating an electorate that is larger, younger, more diverse and more engaged will make a more even playing field.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: Youth activists at the Seattle Children’s March in the Central District in June 2020. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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