This post was updated Oct. 20.
Whether you’re a newcomer trying to navigate Seattle elections or a lifelong Washingtonian just starting to geek out about local politics, there’s a lot to learn about how our elections work.
Before you head into the November general election scratching your head, here’s a crash course on how we do things in the Evergreen State.
1. We vote by mail, not at polling places. 📬
One of the most asked questions Emilio Garza, executive director of young voter outreach group Washington Bus, gets from new state voters is where they go to vote. Spoiler alert: You just have to take a trip to your mailbox or your local ballot box.
Up until 2011, each of our counties got to choose whether voters could go to polling places, mail in their ballots or both. Then a new state law made all counties do mail-in ballots to streamline the voting process and make it more convenient for people who don’t have time to queue up at the polls on Election Day.
Today, King County is home to 54 permanent ballot drop boxes—up from just 10 when the boxes were first installed in 2015.
2. King County has thousands of voting districts. 🗺
Our county is massive and encompasses a whopping 2,593 districts where people vote on everything from funding local parks to electing their congressional representatives. (Fun fact: One of those districts is a cemetery maintenance area that’s home to just eight registered voters!) As a result of all these different districts, there are 494 unique ballots sent out to voters during election season, said King County Elections’ Kendall LeVan Hodson.
3. We offer our ballots in five languages. 🙌🏽
Hell yeah! That’s two more than we’re required to. The federal Voting Rights Act says all ballots have to be available in Chinese, Vietnamese, and English. But King County also offers voting materials, like ballots and voters pamphlets, in Korean and Spanish.
4. We elect our judges. ⚖️
Many other states appoint their judges, but not Washington. Since we officially became a state in 1889, voters have had a say in who presides over municipal, county, and state courts through nonpartisan elections. This process makes judges accountable to their constituents.
In 2005, Washington State Supreme Court Justice Charlie Wiggins, King County Superior Court Judge John Ruhl, and attorney Paul Fjelstad created VotingForJudges.org to better educate the public about judicial candidates. The nonpartisan site is a considered a go-to place for understanding judicial elections.
5. We hold our elections in strange months. ⛄️🌤
If you’ve voted in Seattle for a while, it might feel like we’re always having an election for something. Our primary and general elections happen every year in August and November. We also have special elections in February, April, or during the general and primary elections.
During Seattle’s August primary election, 37 percent of registered voters submitted their ballots. While this was the highest primary voter turnout in King County the last decade, it’s still pretty low. That’s why some people, like Secretary of State Kim Wyman, say it doesn’t make sense to hold elections in August, which is vacation time for many folks. Wyman and other state legislators, have said they would support moving future primary elections to another month, perhaps May or June.
6. You can’t register to vote ON Election Day. 🤦🏾
Instead, we have a lot of confusing registration deadlines. Over the last few months, King County voters fielded four voter registration deadlines: two for registering to vote online and two in-person registration dates for new state residents. For the general election, registration deadlines fell nearly a month before Election Day, which can create barriers to registering to vote.
“In Washington State, we have multiple deadlines that are, quite frankly, confusing the heck out of people,” said Julie Wise, who runs King County elections.
To establish Election Day or same-day voting registration, Washington State representatives would need to pass laws to allow that to happen. Voting advocates, like Washington Bus and local and state officials including Wise and State Senator Patty Kuderer, are fighting to allow new voters to register on Election Day. And eventually Emilio Garza of Washington Bus wants to pre-register young people to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.
“We see in states like Colorado and Illinois where they have same-day or automatic voter registration, that when you increase access to the ballot, people are turning out at higher rates,” he said.
By the way, if you’re new to town and haven’t registered to vote yet, you can do that in person at the King County election department in Seattle or Renton by Oct. 30. Don’t have time to do that? Register here so you’ll be ready to vote in the next election.
BONUS: We have a pretty cool site where you can see your ballot and your whole voting history. 🤓
After you’ve sent in your ballot and it’s been processed by county elections staffers, you can check out which elections you’ve voted in here.