Washington's voter turnout breaks record

News Release
Issued: November 25, 2008

Washington state's 2008 General Election broke a voter turnout record that had stood since World War II. Counties certified election returns Tuesday that showed that an all-time record of 84.61 percent of the state's 3.63 million registered voters cast ballots this year. Nearly 3.1 million ballots were tallied over the past three weeks, yet another record. 

"I couldn't be prouder of Washington voters for taking part in this crucial election in such dramatic fashion," said a delighted Secretary of State Sam Reed. "This has been an amazing year for our country and our state, and it is clear that Washington voters were enthused and engaged to a degree we've never seen before. They registered, they listened, they got involved and they voted."

The 39 counties certified their election results on Tuesday and will transmit them to Olympia by Wednesday night. Then final numbers are that 3,630,314 voters were registered this year, an all-time record, and for the first time, over 3 million Washingtonians voted, (3,069,496). To be sure, setting the record was an 11th-hour accomplishment, and by the tiniest of margins. By late afternoon on Certification Day, the voter turnout percentage finally topped the record set in 1944 (84.5395 percent).

Reed praised the County Auditors' handling of the election cycle, particularly dealing with the crush of new voters, a new primary, and implementing hundreds of reforms adopted in the wake of the 2004 gubernatorial election. "They proved beyond a doubt that they were up to the task," Reed said.

Reed said 2008 truly turned out to be a watershed year for elections in Washington:

  • Voters registered in record numbers, topping the previous record (set in 2004) by more than 120,000, even after well over 450,000 registrations were cancelled or placed on inactive status as a result of a new 2006 voter registration electronic database that greatly improved roll reviews. State and county election officials worked to boost registrations, offering the convenience and security of online registration for the first time in our state, and launching outreach efforts for 18-24-year olds and underrepresented populations.
  • Turnout was the best in modern times. As of latest tally, 3,071,587 ballots were counted. This is the first time more than 3 million Washingtonians voted. The previous record for ballots cast, set in 2004, was 2,884,783. The percentage turnout that year was 82.23. 
    Reed said the surge in voter interest can be attributed to the extremely strong appeal of the presidential and governor's races, dozens of highly competitive down-ballot races and initiatives, get-out-the-vote efforts, and heavy use of mail-in ballots. This year, 37 of the 39 counties voted exclusively by mail, with King and Pierce still allowing poll-site voting as well.

Two counties, San Juan and Jefferson, topped 91 percent turnout, and Garfield and Island weren't far from the 90 percent mark. King and Pierce, with some poll-site voting, were at 84 percent and 81 percent, respectively.

An informal survey showed Washington, Oregon and Wyoming with the best turnout of the states. 

  • Voters adjusted beautifully to a new voter-approved Top 2 Primary in August. It was the third primary system in the past five years, due to continuing litigation by the political parties. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Top 2 system in March, and state and county election officials moved quickly to carry out the voters' wishes. The new system allows candidates to list the party they prefer, but it isn't the old-style nominating primary that produces a nominee from each major party. Rather, it allows voters to collectively choose two finalists for each office. An Elway Poll showed people overwhelmingly approved the new system and preferred it greatly to the previous "pick-a-party" system that restricted a voter to one party's candidates.
  • The election was the first presidential-gubernatorial election year since the ultra-close governor's race in 2004 showed the need for extensive election reform. The state Elections Division and County Auditors worked with Governor Gregoire, Secretary Reed and the Legislature to approve and implement hundreds of improvements. More changes are in the works, as election leaders remain committed to reforms that will help assure elections that are fair, accurate, accessible and secure.     

Reed said the counties were prepared for the potential of another ultra-close race for governor, given the pre-election polls. That didn't happen: according to Tuesday's certified results from the counties, Governor Gregoire was re-elected by a margin of 6.5 percentage points, over her challenger, Dino Rossi. Two legislative races will go to recount, but there will be no statewide or congressional district recounts this year.

Secretary Reed will certify the election results next week, on December 4.

Some highlights:

  • PRESIDENT.  The Democratic ticket, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, finished with a more than 17 percentage point advantage and will receive all 11 of the state's electoral votes. The last time the state voted Republican was in 1984. Obama-Biden had 1.75 million votes, or 57.7 percent, to McCain-Palin's 1.23 million, or 40.5 percent. Other tickets also had votes.  All of Eastern Washington, except Whitman and Klickitat, went for McCain. All of Western Washington except Lewis went for Obama.
  • GOVERNOR.  Governor Gregoire was re-elected with about 1.6 million votes, or 53.25 percent, to Rossi's 1.4 million or 46.75 percent. Rossi carried all of Eastern Washington, plus Skamania, Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Mason and Clallam. Gregoire carried 12 counties, Rossi 27.
  • STATEWIDES. A third of the nine statewide elected positions will have new occupants, all by fairly narrow margins. The new treasurer will be Jim McIntire, who prefers Democratic Party; Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who prefers Democratic; and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, nonpartisan. Handily re-elected were Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, Auditor Brian Sonntag and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, all preferring the Democratic Party; and two statewide officeholders who prefer the Republican Party were re-elected to new four-year terms: Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed.
  • CONGRESS. All nine U.S. House members were re-elected. Six prefer Democratic and three prefer Republican. There was no U.S. Senate race this year.
  • SUPREME COURT. All three justices on the ballot this year were re-elected. Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson prevailed in the primary and no one filed against Debra Stephens. All were on the November ballot by themselves, allowing the possibility of a write-in challenge.
  • LEGISLATURE. All 98 House seats and 26 Senate races were on the ballot. Republicans gained one Senate seat, for a new division of 31 prefer-Democratic Party and 18 prefer-Republican Party.  In the House, where two races will be recounted, Republicans appear to have gained one seat and the House split would be 62 prefers-D and 36 prefers-R.
  • INITIATIVES. Voters strongly approved measures dealing with terminally ill patients and concerning long-term care services. Voters strongly rejected a measure dealing with transportation.