Think About It: Counting votes

An email arrived last week that set me on a path of researching voter participation in our community, in this case Clallam County. The email was from the Civics Education Committee of the Clallam County League of Women Voters (LWV/CC). I’m what I call a bystander member of the committee because I cannot actively participate but have an abiding interest in the education of our youth.

True to its name, the Civics Education Committee is intent on bringing civics education to our youth as well as adults that will result in interest, motivation and participation in fulfilling our basic responsibilities as American citizens.

Minutes of the most recent meeting of the committee were attached. Embedded in those minutes was a chart of Clallam County voter participation by age in the last election (see chart below).

The chart reports that 67.5 percent of registered voters 65 and older returned ballots, clearly outpacing the next category of 50.5 percent of voters between the ages of 55 and 64. Reports of voter participation stairsteps down the remaining four categories, the last reporting 17.2 percent voter participation of registered voters aged 18-24.

I can’t say I was shocked by or in any way expected the low level of participation of our youth. I was more intrigued about what is behind those numbers. It has been a long time since I’ve written about voting; it was time to look at it again, especially considering my recent writing about voter suppression antics in other states.

I set about learning more about voting practices of our community and followed the chart into the Secretary of State website to explore the data. Here’s a bit of what I learned about the recent election:

• 39.9 percent of eligible state voters returned their ballots.

• 48.5 percent of eligible Clallam County voters return their ballots.

• 1.3 percent of returned state ballots were challenged * (not counted)

• 1.04 percent of returned Clallam ballots were challenged* (*Challenged votes are submitted late, lack signature match, unsigned, someone other than voter or arrive in an empty envelope.)

• 56.2 percent of state voters used drop boxes to deliver their ballots

• 69.65 percent of Clallam voters used drop boxes

An overview of statewide elections from 2012, not surprisingly, reported greater participation in presidential election years. Clallam County was no different recording 82.1 percent in 2012, 80.5 percent in 2016 and 86.1 percent in 2020. The years following the presidential years are typically the lowest percentage ranging from 41.9 percent to 53.4 percent of eligible voter participation. Mid-term turnout fared better by about an additional 10-20 percent recorded participation.

Census bureau data on national statistics based on interviews related to the 2020 election recorded 67 percent of all citizens 18 and older reported voting, up 5 percentage points from 2016).

An important statistic given that only citizens — U.S.-born or naturalized — of ages 18 or older are eligible to vote is the number of eligible citizens who register to vote. The census bureau reports that in 2020, 73 percent of all voting-age citizens were registered to vote, 2 percentage points higher than in 2016.

Washington state is reported to have 67.2 percent of its eligible voters registered.

Here’s how all this adds up when votes are counted in Washington state: For every 100 eligible voters, 67.2 have registered to vote. Of those 67.2, 39.9 percent or 27 voted in the 2021 election. So, about 27 percent of people eligible to vote voted in 2021.

Such a dismal turnout raises the question of why anyone is concerned about voter suppression; it’s already suppressed. Seems to me the work is to motivate people to register, then vote! And from the statistics, we can see much of that work needs to be done with young people and young families.

We all need to realize how important our vote is individually and collectively. I have talked with people who shun “politics.” For them, voting and being an elected official seems to translate to conflict and anger, an understandable opinion these days.

However, if people remove themselves from the political process of voting, they give up the opportunity to choose a different path.

Discovering purpose, energy of voting

The people of Sequim City overwhelmingly voted in a slate of four candidates supportive of a new direction by their city council when the community mobilized to increase awareness of the issues and choices facing the city. The 2021 vote followed a 2019 election of four council positions in which all four candidates ran unopposed and, I suppose, you could say won overwhelmingly.

I expected the 2021 turnout to be greater than 2019 but it wasn’t: 58.12 percent of Sequim city’s registered voters voted in 2021 versus 59.69 percent in 2019. The real difference was that voters and candidates were energetic and purposeful in 2021. They wanted something different than they had.

This community took back ownership of the government for and by the people.

Our community learned that local elections and officer holders are as important as national elections, perhaps more so when we think of how directly local decisions effect our daily lives — a roundabout, a housing development, medical facilities, school curriculum.

The data presented here raises many questions but also points to at least two solutions: register more eligible voters and increase voter participation.

We do need to understand why more young people aren’t voting. One answer is because they didn’t learn civic responsibilities as children. Our state legislature must have concluded as much when they passed RCW 28A,230.094 which mandated that high schools include a course in civics beginning with or before the 2020-21 school year.

The civic committees of the LWV/CC are making efforts by joining with schools with program like “Kids Voting USA” in which the LWV purchases the software that allows students to learn voting and have their votes count! One program had students voting to select a school menu item.

We need to find ways to tie our daily lives with the importance of voting our values and our expectations of our government. We could start by untying competitive politics from actual governing such as insisting elected officials do their jobs once elected.

Not possible? Depends on whom we vote in as decision and policy-makers.

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at