Missing in action: How absent young voters swung Seattle politics


From his perch at Seattle University, politics professor Patrick Schoettmer has had a ground-level view of Seattle’s progressive revolution this past decade.

“Walking along Broadway, each day counting down to the election, you’d see new Kshama Sawant posters,” he says. “They’d have a fresh one up every day, like an Advent calendar for politics. So out in the streets, you could see and feel the election coming. Nobody else had a ground game like that.”

This year, he says, there was nothing. Or not much.

“On Wednesday I asked my state and local politics class if they voted, and only two out of 19 hands went up,” Schoettmer says. “They just weren’t that interested in it.”

The story of political upheaval is usually told as an action drama. It’s the year of the soccer mom, say, or the angry white man. Somebody has crashed the gates demanding change.

The election we just had is more about who was missing. For Seattle it marks a big shift in city politics back toward the middle. But it likely came about as much due to absence as any clarion call.

The young voters didn’t show.

Overall, voter turnout was down across the board. As of Friday, about 38% of King County’s 1.38 million registered voters had cast ballots. That’s the lowest general election turnout in 20 years. Seattle turnout was about 46%, the second-lowest for a general election in the city in 20 years.

More important than the general apathy, though, was who stayed away the most.

Older voter participation declined only slightly compared with the last similar off-year election, in 2019. The number of voters 65 and older, the largest voting bloc, was down about 6% from 2019, according to ballot return stats.

But young voting plunged. Voters aged 25 to 34 dropped off by 27% compared with 2019. The number of ballots returned by the 18-to-24 set, known to be the most progressive group, fell by 31% countywide.

In Seattle, voter turnout dropped the most in … you guessed it, Kshama Sawant’s 3rd District of Central Seattle. It was a robust 58.8% in 2019, but it fell off 12 points this year. That meant about 10,000 fewer people voting, in a district race decided by about 2,000 votes.

“Capitol Hill definitely stood out as atypically weak in early ballot returns,” says Ben Anderstone, a political consultant for Progressive Strategies NW who is tracking turnout.

All of these 2023 numbers are preliminary, as ballot processing is continuing. But the vast majority of the ballots are in.

Overall, roughly 40,000 fewer Seattleites showed up for this election than in 2019, when progressives rebuked Amazon’s money and ran a complete sweep of the council elections.

There’s no way of knowing how these missing Seattleites might have voted. But their absence almost certainly contributed to a big swing away from the left. The center-left candidates may win up to five of the seven council seats on the ballot — some of them in squeaker contests.

Why didn’t those 40,000 cast votes?

Schoettmer has a counterintuitive take — which is that the candidates were all kind of alike. The election was often presented as being some Titanic struggle between right and left lane competing visions for the city. But Schoettmer says many of his students said they couldn’t really tell the candidates apart.

“In most of the races, there weren’t strong distinctions being drawn,” he says.

Recent polling of Seattle has shown widespread lack of faith in the City Council, which could also depress turnout. I wrote about a survey last month that showed support for the council collapsing on the far left, which had previously backed it. Sometimes when you get turned off, you tune out.

Other theories are that protest movement politics can’t sustain itself forever, so Seattle’s progressives are taking a rest. Or that the far left was focused on Gaza and the Middle East. Or that everyone is flat-out exhausted — from resisting Trumpism, from the pandemic, from the George Floyd protest era, from it all.

Schoettmer comes back to Sawant. Love her or loathe her, she got you up out of your seat. Even her recall election, held on a random December day in 2021 when it was the only thing on the ballot, drew 7,000 more District 3 voters than the election this week to replace her.

“The turning of the page of Seattle’s progressive moment, from 2013 to 2023, is really the story of Sawant,” Schoettmer said. “She was by far the biggest influence.”

Coming and going, as it turns out.

They say that 80% of life is showing up. For democracy, though, it’s 100%. It’s the whole game.

So I don’t have much sympathy for not voting. In Seattle, you don’t even have to be energized up out of your seat: They hand-deliver you the damn ballot, and stamp it for you. You can vote from your couch. That more than half of Seattleites still couldn’t be bothered is maybe a sign they shouldn’t be guiding the city anyway.

But then I snap out of my old man shouting at clouds reverie, and I think of 2024 — when the future of the country will be at stake. Young voters especially, the same ones who sat this election out, are going to be counted on to do nothing less than save American democracy.

Will they do it? Seattle has been on the vanguard of civic activism, so voter apathy here is big news heading into 2024. Was this year’s disillusionment a trend, or a pause? Will young people be there next year when we really need them? Please?

If I’m not up out of my seat quite yet, I am definitely on the edge of it.

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