King County voter turnout plateaus ahead of August primary

31 July 2023

King County is one day away from the 2023 primary election, but less than 17% of its registered voters have turned in ballots, according to the county’s ballot tracking data.

The City of Seattle is responsible for 36% of the ballots (81,000 and counting — approximately 11% of the city’s population), with Bellevue, Kirkland, Kent, and Federal Way rounding out the top five for King County cities with the most ballots collected. Within the county, less than 2% of Medina and Pacific residents have turned in ballots, less than 3% of ballots were collected from Milton residents, less than 4% of Algona residents have voted, and less than 6% of Kent and SeaTac residents have voted, as of this reporting.

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More ballots are expected to pile up at the last minute, as nearly 60% of the collected ballots arrived within the past six days. Halei Watkins, a spokesperson for King County Elections, told The Seattle Times the county is still projecting a 35% turnout.

King County has hit a 35% voter turnout in both the 2019 and 2021 August primaries, according to ballot data. It’s been since 2017 when the county dipped below 35% turnout.

According to the Washington Secretary of State database, just 29.7% of registered voters turned in ballots in the August 2021 primary election. 29.6% of registered voters voted in 2019, while just 26.9% of registered voters voted in the 2017 primary.

Residents 65 years old and older represent 45% of the collected ballots, while just 3.6% of registered voters in the 18-24 demo range have turned in ballots.

With four of the seven Seattle City Council district representatives not seeking reelection, 45 candidates have entered the race to potentially overhaul the council. The incumbents running for reelection — Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Dan Strauss — represent Districts 7, 2, and 6, respectively.

For the District 1 seat, Rob Saka, a lawyer for Meta, has raised the most money at $93,730 for his campaign. Tanya Woo has raised the most money in the District 2 race at $93,729 — including $76,575 through Democracy Voucher donations. District 2’s incumbent representative, Tammy Morales, raised $88,061 in comparison.

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Joy Hollingsworth, a co-owner of a family cannabis business, leads the District 3 race in funds received at $93,640, while Ken Wilson, a civil engineer and small-business owner, leads all District 4 candidates with nearly $88,000 raised. Nilu Jenks has more than double the funds of her next closest challenger in District 5 at $76,499.

Pete Hanning, the executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, has an approximate $5,000 lead on incumbent Dan Strauss in funding for the District 6 race, with both candidates receiving north of $85,000. Andrew Lewis, meanwhile, has more than doubled his challengers in funding, receiving nearly $95,000 for the District 7 race.

Public safety, housing and homelessness, public drug consumption, and local inflation have consistently polled as residents’ biggest issues both the city and the county are facing.

In response to the poor voting turnout, beginning in 2026, some King County races will move to even years to attract a higher turnout. Voters approved this change in November 2022.

King County changes voting cycle: King County Council votes to move elections to even years

When looking at the data released after each election cycle, a marked difference was found in voter turnout between even and odd election years, with an average of 1,076,000 voters during even years in King County compared to an average of 599,000 in odd years.

Washington State’s primary system has always been a little more unique compared to other states as, in 2004, the state changed its primary ballot system to advance the two people with the most votes into the general election, regardless of party affiliation. This has resulted in two candidates from the same party competing in the November election instead of having voters always choose their top candidates on a primary ballot just for their chosen party.

After some initial obstacles and challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court approved this voting system officially in 2008.

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