Rain or shine, King County’s ballot box sits outside the Vashon Library for islanders to drop off their ballots for Washington’s upcoming presidential primary, scheduled for March 10.
On a grey, blustery afternoon last Friday and Monday, a trickle of people leaving or coming to the library placed their paper ballots into the narrow slot with what may be hundreds or thousands of others.
“My advice to voters is that if they want the clearest results possible on Election Night to not wait until Election Day to return their ballot,” Halei Watkins, communications officer with King County Elections, wrote in an email to The Beachcomber.
The box, in some ways, is an illustration of the change between the way islanders had cast their votes in the 2016 presidential primary versus 2020. Registered island voters, regardless of which party they are affiliated with, will all vote by mail as opposed to meeting within public to hold a caucus.
What’s more, the Evergreen state will have more influence — particularly in choosing the Democratic nominee for president — since state law moved up the contest by two months.
With the primary just days away, The Beachcomber spoke with island voters and an official with the King County Elections office, which will administer the primary.
Changes from 2016
In 2020, Washington state’s Republican Party is holding a primary, just as it did four years ago when the GOP nominated the incumbent president, Donald Trump. The Democrats, for their own internal reasons, overwhelmingly switched over to the primary format after a 2016 caucus that saw lots of reported strife in numerous communities throughout the state.
Will Casey, spokesman for the Washington State Democrats, said the format is more accessible for voters.
“It’s tough for them to make it through a several-hours long caucus process,” Casey said. “They can do their own research,
their ballots in their hands, on the various candidates. They can also even hold a voting party with their neighbors and talk about who they all like in the primary.”
In addition, last year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation moving up Washington’s presidential contest sooner in the primary and caucus calendar — from May to March. The chief executive, a former presidential contender himself, argued it would allow the Evergreen State to have more influence in the 2020 race.
Casey said the date change is a positive step for Democrats.
“You’ve already seen, dating back to last summer, several of the top contenders come and do public events here,” he said. “We’ve seen a much higher degree of traffic through the state from the 2020 candidates than we would have seen much later in the cycle.”
Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, said the date change is relevant to his party, even if it’s in a re-election year for the sitting president.
“Hopefully, based on the fact that it’s moved up now, it will stay moved up,” he said. “Then, in 2024, when maybe we have a contested race on our side and multiple candidates running, then our votes matter … in determining who our nominee is. So I think it’s more of the big picture.”
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman stated in a news release on Monday that 2020 is the first time in state history both major political parties will use the results to allocate their delegates for the parties’ national conventions.
Watkins said King County Elections expected a 40% turnout in this upcoming presidential primary but is now “on track to out-pace” that figure by 2 or 3%.
“So folks are excited. They are turning in their ballots, which is great,” Watkins said. “We love the extra work (of counting ballots).”
In an FAQ on its website, King County Elections says voters cannot cast an unaffiliated or independent ballot; they must choose to vote with the Democrats or Republicans. The party declaration will be public record for 60 days, but voters’ choices for president will not, according to the secretary of state’s office.
When voters declare they’re either Republican or Democrat, they cannot vote for a candidate in the opposing party, Watkins said.
“If they cross-party vote … we actually have to reject their ballot, so their vote will not be counted,” she said. “We really encourage folks to follow those instructions.”
Watkins said presidential primaries are the only election contests in which voters must declare a party. That may be a little hard for them to remember, given presidential elections are once every four years, she said.
“So we definitely hear that same level of frustration and concern from our voters about how they select a party this time around, too,” Watkins said.
Island resident Jennifer Zeisig, who has conducted local training on voter registration drives, is concerned that this provision in the ballot rules is confusing residents.
“This highlights the importance of voters providing at least one of the ‘optional’ contact methods (email or phone), on the back of their ballot to facilitate the King County Elections office clarifying party preference, signature, or other issues,” she wrote in an email to The Beachcomber.
Watkins was asked about these concerns in an email from The Beachcomber and responded that voters who don’t put either Democrat or Republican on their ballot will have it challenged by King County Elections.
“That means that we will not count their ballot until that challenge is ‘cured’ or fixed,” she wrote. “They simply need to fill out the form we send to them and return to us either by mail, by email, in-person, or by fax.”
They must be in hand by the time the election is certified — March 20, but realistically, by close of business the day prior.
Voters can, however, write in a candidate in the column of the party they choose to identify with, according to sample ballot provided on the King County Elections website. In order for that vote to count, Watkins said, it must be the name of an approved write-in candidate from either of the Democratic or Republican parties.
The Democratic Party has 13 candidates on the ballot. This includes U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and businessman Andrew Yang, who have all dropped out of the race. The reason they’re all on Washington’s ballots is because those were the names submitted by the state Democratic Party on Jan. 7, according to King County Elections.
“I think that [Washingtonians] have a lot of very good choices and I think the primary process has sharpened each of those candidates,” Casey said. “Whoever emerges as the nominee will be even more battle-tested and ready to take on Donald Trump in the general because of the high quality of the competition we’ve had in the primaries so far.”
During an outing at Ober Park, island resident Galen Priest told The Beachcomber he’s voting for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said he supports him for the fact that “I happen to agree with a lot of his ideas and he’s got such a long track record of supporting those ideas.”
Not only that, Sanders is “a lot more trustworthy than the typical political candidate,” Priest said.
Asked about Trump, Priest said the president’s policies and attitude make him “a complete disaster all the way around.” Despite this, he believes the incumbent president could be re-elected.
“His kind of base of support that he had last time around is predominately still with him,” Priest said, adding, “I’m hoping there will be enough people who realized these policies aren’t working.”
Priest said he has not sent his ballot in the mail, but he will in the coming days.
“I’m a last-minute kind of guy,” he said with a laugh.
On the Washington Republic Party ballot, President Donald Trump is the only name present. Though former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and California businessman Rocky De La Fuente are challenging him.
“I would say it’s pretty clear President Trump will be our nominee,” Heimlich said. “There’s really no serious challengers.”
He believes it’s still important for state Republicans to vote for the sitting president in the primary and that Trump is the right choice for voters in 2020.
“When people are evaluating President Trump and his record, I think it’s important to look at the policies,” Heimlich said.
On the Vashonites Facebook page, Islander Randy Sauer wrote that his choice for president will be “Trump!!!! He’s the best president ever!!!!”