Vote-by-mail advocates have long argued that the system increases voter participation, particularly in traditionally low-turnout off-year elections, and this recent general election certainly doesn’t provide any evidence to the contrary. Indeed, when compared to other cities, Seattle’s off-year turnout is simply off the charts.
HA comment thread regular N in Seattle, who also writes at Daily Kos and his own Peace Tree Farm, has painstakingly constructed a spreadsheet looking at the 43 U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 that held mayoral contests in November, 2009, and ranked by turnout, Washington state’s Seattle, Everett, Vancouver and Tacoma not only occupy the top four spots, but once you get past fifth place Stamford, CT’s 41.9%, the rest of the nation doesn’t even come close.
The table above displays the top ten cities by mayoral race turnout in November, 2009; you can view the complete table here.
As can be seen, Seattle’s 57.6% voter turnout is simply off the charts, while even Tacoma, Washington’s poorest performing major city (and the only one without all mail-in elections) ranks far above all but Stamford. The average turnout across the 43 cities was only 23.8%, while the lowest was recorded in Durham, NC, where only 8.1% of registered voters cast ballots in a mayoral race that tossed out an incumbent.
To put this in perspective, Seattle’s population of just under 600,000 ranks 25th in the nation, yet only one city cast more ballots for mayor this November: New York, with a population of over 8.3 million. Houston TX, by comparison, with a population of over 2.3 million and a 19.1% turnout, cast only 179,000 ballots… about 37,000 less than much smaller Seattle. The level of voter participation isn’t even close.
And one can’t simply write off Seattle’s 2009 turnout as an anomaly due to contentious mayoral, county executive and ballot measure contests. In 2005, when Mayor Nickels was barely challenged by Al Runte, Seattle voters turned out at a similarly impressive 55.47% rate. And at 47.46%, even Seattle’s off-off-year 2007 turnout, with no mayoral or executive race on the ballot, would have topped the 2009 list.
In fact, at 38.6%, Seattle turned out a higher percentage of registered voters in this year’s August primary than all but one non-Washington city on the list could muster in the November general. That’s pretty damn impressive.
What explains the relatively high voter turnout in Washington state, and Seattle in particular? It would be a reach, given the data presented, to give all the credit to our vote-by-mail system, but it would be silly to ignore it as a major factor. Since 2001, as the percentage of Seattle voters casting ballots by mail has gone up, so has the turnout in comparable off-year elections. Vote-by-mail advocates promised higher turnout, and so far, that’s what we have seen.
But the turnout disparity is simply too great to attribute to vote-by-mail alone, as clearly there is something different about the political culture here that prompts greater voter participation, particularly in off-year elections. Perhaps the steady stream of ballot measures, as much as I hate them, keeps voters more engaged? And despite the lamentations of editorialists, perhaps too the interjection of partisan politics into allegedly nonpartisan races helps generate a greater level of voter interest? Or perhaps the near absence of public corruption in recent decades has failed to encourage the same level of cynicism and apathy that plagues other big cities?
Regardless, we’re clearly doing something right here compared to the rest of the nation, and that’s something of which all Washingtonians can be proud… at least, those of us who truly believe in democracy.