There is a pretty consistent refrain I hear from election administrators both here in Washington State and across the country: “We aren’t responsible for turnout.” And, don’t get me wrong, turnout is an incredibly complex and fickle figure. Any number of factors can drive turnout—from an issue that unexpectedly captures the imagination of the electorate, to a hotly contested local race, to a last-minute scandal.
Obviously, we, as election administrators, can’t control whether marijuana is on the ballot. But there are a whole host of factors we do control and I absolutely believe turnout is our responsibility.
At its core, our job as election administrators is to make democracy work—and democracy works best when everyone has an opportunity to have their voice heard. It’s our job to facilitate that.
When I look at our engagement maps and see distinct geographic areas with significantly lower turnout and lower voter registration rates—pockets that pretty much exactly correspond with low-income communities of color and areas where residents speak a language other than English at home—it’s my job to address that. When I hear from youth that they don’t feel like their voice matters; from immigrant and refugee communities that they don’t trust or understand the process; from the disability community that it’s difficult to sign their ballot – it’s my job to address that.
But here’s the thing – turnout is also YOUR job. In the 2016 Presidential Election, we saw turnout of over 82 percent, which was fantastic. In the 2015 General Election, turnout was 40 percent. You guys, that’s atrocious. Our local elections are critically important. Our odd year and special elections are when you get to make choices about city council and school board races, local initiatives and fire district levies, propositions to fund parks and school construction. Those are the important choices about our community and we have to do better.
I will do everything I can to make it as easy and convenient as possible to vote; But I can’t do it for you. Your ballot literally arrives at your door. So does your voters’ pamphlet. If you move, lose your ballot, or spill coffee all over it, we will send you a replacement wherever is convenient for you. I will add drop boxes so it’s easier to return your ballot without a stamp; I will remind you in every way I can think of; but, at the end of the day, you have to vote your ballot. You have to do your part.
Julie Wise was elected as the King County Elections Director in November 2015 and will serve during the 2016-2019 term. Wise is a Washington State certified Election Administrator and is a nationally Certified Election Registration Administrator. She has served King County voters for more than 15 years.