When the ease of vote by mail isn't enough to increase turnout

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OLYMPIA — Elections officials worship at the altar of voter turnout.

For them, it is the one measure of the effectiveness of their staffs and their own self-worth. The county auditor with the highest turnout is exalted at the next auditor convention, winning applause and the right to be the first one through the buffet line.

But there’s no way to sugarcoat this. The turnout for the Aug. 6 primary is going to be ridiculous. And it’s not going to get much better in November.

Don’t blame inconvenience. The auditors have conspired with secretaries of state past and present to make it so easy to vote a caveman could do it, and sometimes as intelligently.

You barely have to sign your name and they mail a ballot to your house. The only thing that would make it easier is if the auditor hand-delivered it and cut your meat and smooshed your peas while you voted (I hear that’s being considered next session).

The math is obvious. The fewer contested races and interesting issues on the ballot, the fewer voters. If the ballot gets completely uninteresting, turnout drops to a point where the only people voting are members of the League of Women Voters — so, maybe 20 or so.

In Pierce County, the only race of broad interest is for the Port of Tacoma in which an incumbent faces three challengers, including a convicted rapist and civilly-committed sex offender. In Seattle, there appears to be a mayor’s race, at least according to Twitter.

The only race of statewide significance on the primary ballot is the 26th District beauty contest between incumbent Sen. Nathan Schlicher and challenger Rep. Jan Angel. Actually, no voters outside the Gig Harbor-centered district care, but the members of the ruling Majority Coalition Caucus will be door belling heavily for Angel so that Sen. Don Benton will no longer be their deciding vote.

Turnout for the primary is expected to rival the attendance at Libertarian Party conventions. Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson thinks somewhere between 19 percent and 22 percent of registered voters will cast a ballot in the primary. In King County, the number might reach 35 percent, including the ballots they lose.

If election officials want to tart up turnout in years when no one wants to run for office, they might need to turn to marketing professionals. Doing your duty is so midcentury. Voters now want to know what is in it for them.

Perhaps the auditors could come up with some Dealsavers where active voters could get two “I Voted” stickers for the price of one. The Seattle Times estimated last week that, because of their greater tendency to vote, older voters and senior citizens will have greater influence on the results, explaining why mayoral challenger Ed Murray recently promised free Hoverounds for all residents over 65.

Turnout by young people is especially anemic in odd-year municipal elections. What was once considered modern — vote-by-mail and touch screens — is no longer cutting edge. How about Vote-by-Snapchat?

And more could be done to motivate voters who don’t trust the mail and prefer to deliver ballots to the drop-boxes — something known as vote-by-car or drive-by voting. Maybe a carwash?

The problem of low turnout began during filing week when candidates were sparse and contested races few. Auditors could offer incentives, such as announcing that the winner of the DuPont City Council Position No. 3 primary would also win four tickets to the Mariners-Astros series in September. Second place finisher? Eight tickets to the Mariners-Astros series in September.

Some of us need no incentive. We revel in the great tradition of opening our ballot at the kitchen table, studying the voters pamphlet while watching House Hunters International and then making our choices, all while wearing boxer shorts.

This primary, however, I won’t be making choices, I will be making choice, as in singular, as in there will be only one race on my ballot.

I should at least be allowed to use a postcard stamp.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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