Danny Westneat: End of the republic? Washington state is No. 1 in voter turnout — for a reason the president thinks is ‘crazy’

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Everyone’s been focused on how the coronavirus has infected the economy. But it’s also sickening democracy, with primaries postponed and plummeting voter turnout in the few elections that have been held.

Not in Washington state, though. It has a built-in immunity. Its citizens do social distancing even in their elections.

It turns out Washington’s recently concluded presidential primary had the highest voter turnout among all the states that have voted in the 2020 election so far — 49.6%.

Ranked by percent of registered voters casting ballots, Washington is first among states that have voted through March 17, followed by Colorado, California and New Hampshire.

“Washington deserves the platinum medal on this,” says Phil Keisling, a former elections official in Oregon. “You were the epicenter of the outbreak at the time, and you still turned out to vote higher than any other.”

The other states that voted the same day as Washington (March 10), or later, all had turnouts at least 15 percentage points lower.

There’s a simple reason for that, and it isn’t that voters here are especially hardy or brave. It’s because — duh — Washington residents vote from home. As does Colorado, ranked No. 2 (and which might really be No. 1 because in that state they don’t count ballots of candidates who have dropped out).

Just as going to work is suddenly “out,” few things are more fashionably “in” right now than all-mail voting from home. It’s a system pioneered by Keisling in Oregon in the 1990s, and in use before this year in just three other states — Washington, Colorado and Utah.

“I’ve been working on this for 30 years, and a pandemic is the last reason we wanted to get attention,” Keisling, chairman of the National Vote at Home Institute, told me Tuesday. “But coronavirus is going to force every state to take a look at this, out of necessity.”

Over their dead bodies, some Republicans have vowed in recent days.

“Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it,” one freaked out GOP congressman, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, said when the idea was proposed as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package (vote by mail was eventually taken out).

“Voting by mail is the single worst form of election possible,” wrote Hans von Spakovsky, of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That means the next president would be determined by ballots that have been marked behind closed doors by who knows who, perhaps collected and dropped in the mail (or not) by another who knows who, and then swiftly processed by the U.S. Postal Service, the same organization that routinely delivers us our neighbor’s mail.”

Right … kind of like how people did their banking for decades? Or pretty much like absentee voting, which has been in use in America since … the Civil War (so the soldiers could still vote).

Anyway, as we know in this state, voting by mail is way more boring than these hyperbolic statements suggest. There’s been no voter-fraud issue, and there’s no conspiracy in how it drives higher turnout (it’s because your ballot comes to you, rather than you having to get off your behind to go to your ballot). You can take your time to fill it out, then choose whether to mail it back or drop it in an elections box. No lines! So it’s more about convenience than revolution.

So what is the right so apocalyptic about? Leave it to the president to blurt out the part that usually goes unsaid.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Donald Trump said Monday about the universal vote by mail measure. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Ah, fear of the people — or at least of some of the people. A hallmark of our democracy.

Keisling said data on vote-by-mail shows it tends to drive up young-voter turnout in urban areas, which in the current climate would theoretically help Democrats. But it also increases older voter turnout in rural areas, which should favor Republicans. Still, it’s clear which side fears the calculus of more democracy.

“I’ve never understood people who want political office, but don’t want more people to vote,” he said. “It’s an authoritarian mentality. Are they afraid for democracy? Or are they afraid for their jobs?”

Easy answer. Also, they’re really worried that when people all over America start voting by mail due to the coronavirus, they won’t want to go back.



Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.


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