This year’s general election brought more energy from Yakima County voters, with 16,000 more voters participating in this election than the 2016 presidential election.
The increased participation brought in large numbers of votes — and new voters — for parties on both sides of the aisle down the ballot. But local party officials say there’s more work to do to maintain voter engagement in off-year elections.
There are also voters yet to be engaged. Despite the large increase of voters in Yakima County, for example, the county had the lowest ballot return rate in the state this election, with 76.1% of all eligible voters participating compared to a state rate of 84.7%, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
There is also much to be learned from this election, informing politics in the county and Central Washington moving forward, political leaders said.
There was a huge rush of early votes in Yakima County, said county Auditor Charles Ross. That’s in contrast to the 2016 election, when a late swell was overwhelming to elections officials. Overall, he said there was similar voter activity and energy, but with thousands of new voters.
As of Friday, 96,683 ballots had been counted.
Voter participation was not as high as expected locally, coming in shy of the 80% voter turnout predicted. Elections officials say this is due in part to a significant increase in voter registration in recent years that diluted a significantly larger voter turnout.
On Election Day alone, at least 500 Yakima County residents registered to vote, Ross said.
While Ross said that’s not a huge amount, he said the ability to show up on the day of to register and cast a vote clear until drop boxes close at 8 p.m. shows that there are “very, very few barriers to participating in the American voting system — in Washington at least. And we’re proud of that.”
There was also new energy in areas like county commissioner and judicial races, Ross said.
“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve never seen this much energy and campaigning around these judge issues,” he said.
In spite of campaign complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ross said local campaigns “really shined.” Local candidates, whether they won or lost, ran campaigns based on issues and without nasty attacks on their opponents. Voters responded well to the informative campaigns on the local level, he said.
The Latino vote
Gabriel Munoz, a community leader who works closely with Yakima County’s Latino population, said he witnessed increased political engagement among people who normally weren’t interested in the presidential election, local elections or “anything that deals with politics.” More people were talking about the candidates and races, he said. There was also significant misinformation spread on social media, with minimal fact checking, he noted.
Munoz said he was surprised to see that many Latino voters favored President Donald Trump locally, in spite of disparaging comments about the Latino community and the president’s aggressive immigration policies.
Debra Manjarrez, chair of the Yakima County Republicans, said popularity among this voter group was no surprise to her.
“Republican values of conservative family values, hard work, the American dream — those are Hispanic family values,” she said. “We’ve gathered a lot of new Latino votes and young people. … Hispanics who take a look at what they like about America and our freedom, it falls in line with the Republican values.”
Democrat Doug McKinley of Richland, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside for the 4th District congressional seat, also said much of the Latino vote in Central Washington must have favored Republicans.
“Our campaign was very targeted towards Latino voters — almost exclusively toward Latino voters — and we under-performed our hopes and expectations,” he said. “We thought we had a more compelling case to make in that community, and obviously the numbers didn’t go our way.”
In Yakima County, McKinley garnered 38% of the vote to Newhouse’s 62%. Still, he pointed out, he brought in a significant number of votes across the congressional district, with over 101,000 votes. No candidate in the last six elections in that district won over 100,000 votes without taking the race, results show.
Leaders of both the Yakima County Republican and Democratic parties reported an increase in voter support and engagement. Campaign merchandise was in high demand on both sides of the aisle, they said.
Manjarrez also noted an increased interest among community members to volunteer to support the party in the lead-up to elections.
The county, which has a legacy of leaning conservative, more or less maintained its 60/40 split favoring Republican candidates, election results down the ballot show.
Trump gained support in the county in terms of votes, Manjarrez pointed out. In Yakima County, he had over 50,000 votes, compared to about 41,700 in 2016.
Percentage-wise, the totals were nearly identical. Trump had just under 52.5% in Yakima County this year, compared to 52.3% in 2016.
On the Democratic side, there was a significant gain from one election to the next. President-elect Joe Biden took nearly 45% of the Yakima County vote for president, compared to 39% for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump wasn’t as popular as some other Republicans in Yakima County. He had fewer votes in Yakima County than Gov. Jay Inslee’s Republican gubernatorial challenger, Loren Culp, who earned 53,952 votes this election, results show. Newhouse also bested Trump, with over 58,000 votes in Yakima County.
Down the ballot, Republicans also took wins across the county.
“In Yakima County, we’re really strong in our state legislative races. We win by huge margins,” Manjarrez said.
In addition to Newhouse’s win, Republicans maintained seats across the 13th, 14th and 15th legislative districts. They also took county commissioner spots, without Democratic opposition.
But the down-ballot legislative races in particular were revealing for Democrats, said Naomi Whitmore, chair of the Yakima County Democrats.
“Democrats have struggled to get sometimes even over that 30% mark in the past,” she said. “This year, we see all of our candidates coming in very close to 40% or ever over 40%. So that’s definitely a change.”
In 2016, for example, Democrats running to be state representatives in the 14th Legislative District garnered about 30% and 32% of the vote. This year, Democrats in the same races took roughly 40% of the vote — including Devin Kuh, who was a write-in candidate on the primary ballot.
In the 15th District, Democratic candidates took 40% of the vote, striking close to a historical 40/60 split favoring Republicans there. But in the 13th District, Republican popularity was stronger, with incumbent Rep. Tom Dent of Moses Lake winning 71%.
The small shifts in Yakima County indicate movement to both Whitmore and Munoz. They both said results from legislative races, as well as results showing that cities like Yakima, Toppenish and Sunnyside favored Biden, were examples of a political shift toward liberal views.
“That tells me that really, this area is more Democratic than maybe people have felt in the past,” Whitmore said. “I think it will change how we run for races and how we support candidates, because we’re seeing that we really can be competitive.”
‘Local, local, local’
While some Democratic Party leaders in Yakima County find hope for future local elections from the November results, others see signs that local control will remain with Republicans.
To McKinley, Newhouse’s opponent, the results in Yakima County and Central Washington as a whole indicate that while Democrats gained popular vote statewide and nationwide, Republicans have a stronghold in rural areas like Yakima.
“While we’re a majority in the country and a majority of the state, we’re not going to be in control of local politics,” he said.
He said this raises a question not of whether the Democratic message is selling, but of why it is selling poorly in the central part of the state. Were these voters opposed to Democratic economic proposals, or instead voting based on issues like abortion? he wondered.
To Norm Johnson, a former Republican state representative in the 14th Legislative District, the region had always leaned conservative, with voters particularly favoring conservative fiscal policy.
Republican state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, who represents the 14th District and ran unopposed, also said the local election results were in line with what he would have anticipated.
“The Republicans did really well,” he said, although he mentioned the low voter turnout compared to the rest of the state.
To Manjarrez, this election now created a need to maintain voter engagement in the local Republican Party and direct attention toward upcoming local elections.
“We need to continue to be out there, focusing on our local races now. We’re talking (about) school boards specifically and City Councils,” said Manjarrez. “Local, local, local is where all Republican counties are going to be focusing. ... Local is where you have the most control anyway. Local is where you need to focus.”
Whitmore of the Democratic Party also has her eyes on local races, and encouraged newly engaged community members to get involved as volunteers or candidates.
While party wins are important to the Yakima Valley’s political leaders, there’s another pressing issue in politics: mending the political divide from the national level on down.
“I’ve seen a lot of different philosophies over the years, but for some strange reason, this country seems to carry on. And that’s good,” said Johnson, who was born in the late ‘30s during Franklin Roosevelt’s term as 32nd president. Thirteen presidents later, Trump is the 45th.
“But I’ve never really seen it quite as divided as it is now,” Johnson added. “So I would just hope that that could be healed.”
McKinley said that moving forward, he hopes to see more honesty from political leadership, as well as better-informed public policy.
“We need to make public policy based on facts and data, logic and science,” he said. This would help quell division created by misinformation, which he said in many recent cases came from Trump’s administration.
To King, it will be important to see politicians working across the aisle to make policy.
“I’m hopeful that calmer, more reasonable heads will prevail,” King said of the upcoming political approach. “We’ve got to get our nation back to where they’re working with each other no matter who is in control. This divisiveness is just not good for our country.”
As he represents constituents in the Yakima Valley, King said he tries to practice collaboration and compromise.
“There’s always the expectation that this is a Republican district. But I don’t think we can take that for granted. … We (local representatives) work very hard at trying to represent all the people in our district,” he said. “If you find that the other side of the aisle is willing to work with you and make some of those changes, then I think it’s incumbent on me to vote for that bill. … It’s a matter of trying to do the best you can for the citizens you have.”
Whatever it takes, Johnson said he wants to see renewed unity.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is bring the people together and realize that we live in the United States,” said Johnson. “We don’t live in separate entities around the country.”