Voter Turnout in Washington Was 62%, Not 84%

This might seem like a weird time to talk about the disengagement of voters in Washington state, right after a “high turnout” presidential election. Sure, the Secretary of State (S.o.S.)  reports that the “turnout” in the state was 84.1%, and that is both better than any result in the past (except when Obama was on the ballot), and sure sounds like a lot. Our S.o.S is elected herself, so it is in her interest to use that high sounding number…even if it is misleading and serves to distract from the woeful, embarrassing, and real meaning of the actual number. The real turnout number is about 62% meaning almost 40% of those eligible to vote, do not.

Political scientists (non-partisan and not elected) when assessing what the real turnout is in an election measure the percentage of votes cast compared to the total number of eligible voters. Participation of people who are of Voting Age Population (VAP), minus the small number of those ineligible (i.e., incarceration, etc.), is a true measure of actual participation in a democracy. Our entire “system”, from campaigns who only care about “3 of 4” voters (voted in at least 3 of last 4 elections), to much of the media who couldn’t care less about issues unless they are important to actual voters, to elected leaders and policymakers who often calculate that there is little to gain by addressing issues of importance to those who don’t vote, is built to ignore those who don’t participate which, of course, only exacerbates the challenge of getting them to participate.

Of course, getting people who are registered to actually vote is important, and great, but shouldn’t we be just a little concerned about all those people who are impacted by our laws policies, and programs created and implemented by our elected representatives? And what about the scope and breadth of the issues unaddressed because the “system” is so heavily weighted to those who actually vote? BTW, lest one thinks that non-voters are somehow only the disempowered and disconnected, the vast majority of the VAP who could vote work and pay taxes.

The notion of “American Exceptionalism” has always been fraught with conflicting meanings and political motivations. Certainly now, after the last four years, the only people even daring to use that term are the Democracy nihilists who want to start a coup because they believe the U.S. should be “great” again, like you know, in 1860. 

But, to the extent the term was used to recognize the beacon the United States shone around the world because of our participatory Democracy and open and fair elections, this too is more smoke and mirrors than deserved recognition. Our actual participation rate puts us in 30th out of 35 (OECD) countries in the world.

When researching a report on Native American voting in the U.S. I learned what certainly now seems quite obvious: Native people of VAP, who at the time had the lowest participation rate of any ethnic or cultural group in the U.S., were likely to be engaged and participate when there was someone or something (i.e., ballot measure) on the ballot very likely to have a direct impact on their lives (positive or negative). In Washington state in 2000, it was Native voters who made the difference and sent the self-avowed “greatest Indian fighter in the U.S. Senate” packing.

We have such a low participation rate in this country because, in very large part, so many people hear and see little reason to believe candidates seeking their votes truly care about them. In Montana Jon Tester, in his first run for the U.S. Senate, drove his pick-up truck to every Indian Reservation located in the state, broke bread with, and listened to the people there. That gesture, the first time ever done in Montana, showed people he would listen to and cared about them. When the “system” (campaigns, media, elected leaders) listens to and acts on behalf of the public, the whole public, then the U.S. will start to have participation numbers worthy of its image and reputation.  

By Russ Lehman

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