As voters went to the polls across King County for the Aug. 1 primary elections, the dominant attitude was that of apathy. Abstention rates rose to their highest level since 2015, with only 30.6% of registered voters participating. In Seattle, which boasted seven high-profile city council elections, turnout was only marginally better, with 36.2% of voters taking part.
In fact, apathy was so high that in six out of the seven Seattle City Council district elections, the total number of voters who opted to not participate doubled the combined vote share of the two leading candidates.
Voter registration also fell, continuing a recent trend of disengagement. During the November 2020 presidential elections, when participation hit its peak, nearly 90% of Seattle voters participated. On that election day, 1,420,898 people were listed on King County’s voter rolls. By Aug. 1 of this year, that number had gradually declined by nearly 40,000. This drop was in spite of the fact that the county’s population increased by almost 80,000 over those three years.
Driving the disengagement were younger voters. According to data from King County Elections and the Washington Secretary of State, only about 15.8% of voters aged 18 to 24 participated in the primary elections, compared to voters 65 and older, who had a turnout rate of 53.4%. This trend maps out almost linearly, with older voters being disproportionately more engaged than their younger peers.
To careful observers of Seattle politics, none of this is new. Our August primaries, which take place in the middle of summer break, have always had far less turnout than the general elections. Similarly, even-year elections, which coincide with the federal election cycle, see double-digit increases in participation compared to odd-year local elections.
Besides the structural factors behind voter turnout, low voting rates could also hint at disillusionment with the Biden administration. By contrast, during the Trump years, participation rose across the county, with liberals using elections to express dissent from the president’s hard-right politics.
Among the third of voters who actually remembered to vote in the Aug. 1 primary elections, the biggest trend was the continued dominance of the main gatekeepers of Seattle elections: The Stranger’s left-leaning Election Control Board and the conservative Seattle Times editorial board. In all seven of Seattle’s city council district elections, the top two winners — who will now go on to the November general election — were endorsed by one of the two media organizations.
Overall, incumbents fared fairly well in the primary. In District 2, representing southeast Seattle, progressive Councilmember Tammy Morales handily beat her more right-leaning opponent Tanya Woo 52% to 42%. Over in Ballard, centrist Councilmember Dan Strauss dominated the District 6 primary with nearly 52% of the vote, with Fremont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Pete Hanning achieving a distant second place at 29%.
Slightly left-of-center Councilmember Andrew Lewis did just enough to drum up support for his campaign in District 7, which encompasses downtown to Queen Anne. He garnered a strong plurality of nearly 44% of the vote, while his rightwing opponent — former naval officer Bob Kettle — won just 31%, Lewis’ five right-leaning challengers garnered a combined 56% of the vote, indicating that the incumbent council member may stand a decent chance to lose in the November general election.
The four open district races saw more mixed results, with both Mayor Bruce Harrell-backed conservatives and The Stranger-endorsed progressives leading in two districts each. In District 1, which encompasses West Seattle and South Park, progressive former Amazon employee-turned-climate-activist Maren Costa came in first with 33% of the vote. Harrell-endorsed attorney Rob Saka was the runner-up with 24%. However, Costa might face a tight race in the general election, as left-leaning candidates won a 45% share of the vote, while right-leaning ones won a combined 50%.
In District 3, which spans Capitol Hill and the Central Area, cannabis entrepreneur Joy Hollingsworth led transit policy expert Alex Hudson by just over 100 votes, with each taking about 37% of the vote. As one of Seattle’s most progressive districts — having re-elected socialist Kshama Sawant thrice — the political terrain may be slightly more favorable for Hudson, who won The Stranger’s support. In total, more moderate candidates won roughly 47% of the vote in the primary, compared to more progressive candidates who garnered 51%.
The highest scoring non-incumbent city council candidate was progressive urbanist Ron Davis in District 4, who won 45% of the vote. He will face his Harrell-backed opponent Maritza Rivera, the deputy director of the city’s arts department, who won about 32% of the vote. Davis may have benefited in part from the lack of other progressive candidates in the race and will have an uphill battle against Rivera, who bested two other, more conservative candidates. Together, the three right-leaning candidates won 55% of the vote.
Up in the far north of Seattle, i.e., District 5, right-leaning Seattle Times-backed former judge Cathy Moore won first place with 31% of the vote, followed by social equity consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner, who won 24%. In perhaps the most fractured of the city council races, District 5 conservatives won a combined 46% of the vote, while progressives won about 33%. This means that voters for third-place candidate Nilu Jenks, who got 19%, will be decisive. Jenks, a neighborhood advocate, positioned herself as a progressive who could appeal to voters in the middle between Moore and ObeySumner.
In addition to Seattle City Council elections, there were also fierce races for multiple King County Council seats. Former executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Jorge Barón managed to snag a unique dual endorsement from both The Stranger and the Seattle Times, handily winning the King County District 4 race with nearly 51% of the vote. The district includes the Seattle neighborhoods of Ballard, Queen Anne and Magnolia. Barón will face Assistant Attorney General Sarah Reyneveld, who won 29%.
Over in King County District 8, which includes West Seattle, Vashon Island and White Center, progressive Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda won an impressive 58% of the vote in the race, besting the more conservative Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon, who won 38%. Aragon’s colleague, homelessness advocate and Burien City Councilmember Cydney Moore, fared worse in the local elections, barely managing to make it past the primaries with 28% of the vote. Moore may struggle to make headway in the general election with an electorate that has become increasingly hostile to unhoused people.
According to local political activist Jazmine Smith, the election results were a measured success for Seattle progressives, who faced expectations of a total wipeout.
“I’ve been really happy with their results,” Smith said. “It seems like there’s a strong path for our city council to get more progressive and deliver more for our communities. I think it could have been a lot worse, but we also still need to work really hard on turning out voters and turning out progressives in the general election.”
Smith added ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters last year, could have aided significantly, allowing voters to choose their favorite candidates instead of being strategic with their only pick.
“I think we definitely need to move to even-year elections if we don’t want voters to be apathetic and if we want to move towards having as much of our community voting in elections,” Smith said. “We can’t exhaust people with four or five elections in a year and every year. Instead, focusing in on even-year elections and reducing the amount is going to be really important for us.”
The 64% of voters who didn’t participate in the Aug. 1 primaries is disproportionately younger and more left-leaning. In order to win a number of highly competitive local races, Seattle progressives will need to turn out this unengaged electorate.
Read more of the Aug. 9-15, 2023 issue.