I had a phone conversation with a reader last week who asked about our stories from the February special election. We had one glaring omission: total voter turnout.
While it wasn’t a number we intentionally left out, the reader was correct. We didn’t publish the numbers.
Let’s take a closer look.
We made a big deal about turnout last November, when Jefferson County had the third highest rate in the state. The Washington Secretary of State reports 83.12 percent of the 25,411 registered voters in the county returned ballots for the general election on Nov. 6, 2018.
Only San Juan County (83.83 percent) and Garfield County (83.28 percent) had better turnouts, although they also had significantly fewer ballots to count. In San Juan County, 11,226 ballots were returned out of 13,392 registered voters, and Garfield, a much smaller geographic area in southeastern Washington, had 1,380 ballots returned from 1,657 registered voters.
This month’s special election numbers were quite different.
Jefferson County saw its lowest February rate in the past decade at 43.08 percent. But there wasn’t a single county statewide that crossed the 50 percent mark; 12 counties broke 40 percent.
Historically, February special election ballots have school measures, either levies — which expire and come up for renewal — or bonds, which are used for capital projects. February is a time when school districts are looking ahead to their annual budgets, which run on the same schedule as the state’s fiscal year, July 1 through June 30.
Occasionally, that can be problematic, especially if the state Legislature — as it has for many of its recent regular sessions — goes into overtime. That’s because public schools receive state funding, which isn’t set until a state budget is passed.
This year’s February turnout wasn’t countywide. It included only the city of Port Townsend and the Port Townsend School District, plus voters in East Jefferson Fire District 1. Voters in Port Ludlow, Quilcene and Brinnon did not have measures on which to vote.
While it’s disappointing numbers are so low, there are a couple factors that could have played a role.
The first is age. U.S. Census data shows 35.6 percent of people live in Jefferson County are 65 and older, the highest rate in the state. That doesn’t mean we are complacent, but it might mean one-third of the populace no longer has kids in school. And unless there is a group that is concerned about how levy dollars would be spent in schools, the ballot measures might not move the needle enough to motivate some people to vote.
Frankly, the school levies were no-brainers. One will replace funds the Port Townsend School District was no longer going to receive based on levy equalization from the McCleary decision, and the other will pay for construction upgrades, both to comply with Americans with Disability Act requirements at the high school and to complete the “vision” at Salish Coast Elementary.
The two levies combined will equal the amount voters approved two years ago. They each passed with more than 67 percent of the vote.
Another factor that could have played into low turnout was the snow. We got hit with one of the largest snowfalls in decades the weekend before election day. While ballots were mailed well before the first snowflakes fell, not everyone turned them in right away. People often fall into one of two categories: those who vote immediately, and procrastinators, like me, who wait until the last minute.
I took my wife’s car to get out of our neighborhood, which was buried under 18 inches of snow. My rear-wheel drive pickup wasn’t going anywhere.
But, then, neither was my wife. Or most people who live in the area.
So when it came to Election Day, my wife organized a last-minute ballot pickup through the neighborhood Facebook page, and she met another woman who was snowed in to pick up a few envelopes.
I was lucky enough to drift my way around the road to pick her up, and we hand-delivered five total ballots that otherwise wouldn’t have counted to a dropbox.
Whether ballot issues directly affect us or not, whether we have kids in school or they’re all grown up or we don’t have kids, whether we agree to pay the same rate as others served by the same fire district, voting comes down to exercising our right as Americans to cast our opinion in a manner that counts.
It matters because it’s the process of civic engagement, a willingness to express choice, no matter which side of the aisle you prefer, and it shapes — and has the potential to shift — the political landscape.
Our county exercised its collective voice very well last November. We should use that same approach for every election.
Brian McLean is the managing editor for the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader. He can be reached at 360-385-2900, ext. 109, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.