Did you know? Thurston County held primary elections on August 1st.
It's a fact of which most Thurston County residents were unaware or simply didn't care. For most registered voters, elections come every two years with all the glitz and glamor of television ads, unsolicited text messages, and mail. Lots of mail.
It isn't a rumor, it's true - there are elections in the odd years also.
It's an odd thing about these odd years: Voters don't turn out. Odd-year elections are dominated by positions at the local level of government. These elections are the most impactful to the daily lives of citizens. Yet participation in these local races dwindles compared to elections in even years. How odd.
The odd-year races may not be as sexy or exciting as their even-year counterparts, but these positions affect children's education, land-use issues, and city management. Even-year races could be seen as posh affairs, where tickets can blow past $100 for a meager plate and an opportunity to see a candidate. The odd years are filled with free potlucks and eager handshakes with candidates you can find at the local grocery store.
This odd-year election is more odd this year, which adds to the potential attraction of lurking voters. In 2022, Thurston County voters chose to expand both the Thurston County Commission and the Port of Olympia Commission. This November, you'll see two Thurston County Commissioner positions and three Olympia Port Commissioner positions on your ballot.
But the chatter on the local community apps and message boards is all about the School Board positions up for election. There's a spotlight nationwide on K-12 education curriculum and culture. This year many flashpoints of the culture war have centered around school boards and K-12 education. But did this hot topic on social threads motivate voters into action?
No, even those hot topics didn't motivate most voters to participate in what might be the United States' lowest-barrier election. Odd-year primary elections have followed a narrow band of turnout so far this century. This year did not see a spike in participation.
Mary Hall, the Thurston County Auditor, believes the community and media are the key to expanding voter participation in these odd year elections. She told me:
"It seems clear that voter turnout dips in odd-year local elections because voters do not feel as informed as they want to be to make clear choices. This is exactly why the Thurston County Auditor's Office has produced a local voters' pamphlet, even when we weren't required to. This is also a testament to the importance of local media and the need for active, informed voters to encourage their friends and neighbors to vote."
Thurston County is not unique in its low odd-year voter turnout. This isn't a Thurston County issue, it is a statewide issue. The state voter turnout consistently matches within a couple percentage points of the county election turnout. There is logical evidence for Auditor Hall's point about the information gap between the even- and odd-year elections. Even-year elections barrage the voter's senses with advertisements and big media coverage. The odd-year elections require more effort from the voter to receive information.
The County Auditor's Office is trying to increase election engagement. "For voter outreach, we table at in-person events throughout the summer and encourage voting through paid advertising,” Hall said, adding, “for example, this fall we are partnering with the Timberland Regional Library on a campaign encouraging active voters to urge their friends and neighbors to vote.”
The odd year will always be the ugly duckling to the even year golden goose. Our history in Thurston County shows the passion in turnout is reserved for even-year elections. Auditor Hall believes that the 58,000 voters who delivered a ballot on August 1st have the power to move the turnout needle in a positive direction by calling or texting a friend to ask them if they voted. The slightest encouragement from a large group of people might make a difference.
The odd-year general election is just around the corner in November. Grab a friend and attend one of those free events to get to know a candidate. The JOLT’s Calendar is an excellent source for events featuring local candidates. The last odd-year general election, in 2021, had a 38.2% voter turnout. Will a majority of Thurston County registered voters show up this year for the local election oddity? Perhaps you have a part to play.
Jay Fratt is an Olympia-based writer and entrepreneur.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The JOLT's staff or board of directors. Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.