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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Despite intense interest in election, voting registrations in WA lag compared to 2016

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Voter registrations in Washington have rebounded after a slump, likely brought on by the pandemic, earlier this year.

Despite intense interest in the 2020 election, and a ballot return rate that's already over 60 percent, voter registrations in Washington have lagged this year, compared to four years ago.

According to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s office, 513,000 people registered to vote in Washington prior to the 2016 election. So far this year, this state has seen approximately 440,000 new registrants, a 14 percent drop compared to four years ago. However, the last two months have shown something of a rebound.

The Covid pandemic was likely a factor in depressing registration numbers this spring.

In King County, the state’s most populous, the year started strong with registrations outpacing 2012 and 2016. In February, 13,164 people registered compared to 10,456 four years prior, according to data provided by King County Elections.

But after the pandemic hit and the state went into lockdown, the numbers plummeted. In April, just 2,946 people registered to vote in King County compared to 9,627 in 2016.

A contributing factor could have been that, on March 31, the Department of Licensing closed all of its offices because of Covid. In 2018, 46 percent of new voter registrations in Washington happened through the Department of Licensing -- what are known as Motor Voter registrations.

The downturn in registrations earlier this year wasn’t just in Washington. A September report by the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR) in Washington, D.C. found a “remarkable decline” in voter registration in several states, including California and Texas, compared to 2016. 

However, as Election Day approaches there’s been a noticeable uptick in Washington. The Secretary of State’s office reports 105,000 new registrations since October 1, compared to 95,000 registrations between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

Since September 1, there have been more than 190,000 new registrations.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said the level of interest in recent weeks is comparable to 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected. That year, Dalton said, a lot of young people were registering to vote. This year, she said, is different.

“It’s the entire population that we’re seeing walk through the door,” Dalton said. “It’s everybody. Everybody wants a say in this election.”

The window for online voter registration has now closed. But in-person registrations will continue through 8 p.m. on Election Day, under legislation passed in 2019

David Becker, the executive CEIR, told NPR last month that a surge in registrations in September and October of a presidential election year is typical. 

Even with the pandemic and registrations lagging this year, there are still a lot more registered voters in Washington in 2020 than there were in four years ago.

Since 2016, the voter rolls have swelled by 600,000 bringing the total number of registered voters in to 4,861,482. That’s a 14 percent increase. During that same time period, the state’s population grew by four percent.

Republican parts of the state have seen the biggest jump in voter registrations since 2016.

Data from the Secretary of State’s office broken down by legislative district show the largest surges in registrations are in seven Republican-held districts.

The biggest jump, nearly 19,000 voters or a 20 percent increase, happened in the conservative 4th Legislative District, which includes Spokane Valley. That’s the district currently represented by state Rep. Matt Shea who was accused last year in a House investigation of participating in an act of domestic terrorism – an allegation he denies. Shea is not running for re-election this year. 

Other voter registration hot spots from 2016 to now include two fast-growing southwest Washington legislative districts, plus one rural Pierce County district and one rural King County district.

Because Washington voters don’t register by party, it’s not clear which party might benefit from these newly-minted voters.

Even with an uptick in new registrations, it’s estimated that almost 11 percent of the voting eligible population in Washington is still not registered.

Separately, there are approximately 366,000 “inactive” voters who are on the rolls, but not receiving a ballot because their address is not current. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."