Why Do Late Voters Lean Left?

Early birds lean right, while late voters lean left.

That, anyhow, is the conventional wisdom among Seattle's politicos. And its truth or falsity may decide the two Seattle city council races which could still go either way. In District 1, lefty-favorite Lisa Herbold is all but certain to overtake her opponent Shannon Braddock, just as she did during the August primary. And in District 2, it's still possible for upstart Tammy Morales to unseat incumbent Bruce Harrell.

The big example of a late swing to the left, of course, is Kshama Sawant's 2013 race against incumbent Richard Conlin. On election night, Conlin appeared the victor with a 7-percent lead over his socialist challenger. But in the nail-biting week that followed, Sawant gradually overtook Conlin's 6,000 vote lead and beat him by the skin of her teeth.

Former mayor Mike McGinn's loss to current mayor Ed Murray that same year is also instructive. Two days after the election, McGinn trailed Murray (considered the more moderate of the two) by 13 percent. By the time the results were certified, that gap had shrunk to only 4 percent.

"Seattle is not unfamiliar with November surprises," says former District 1 council candidate Brianna Thomas. "I don't think campaigns are done until they're certified. Maybe that's because I've chased so many ballots."

Alex Clardy, campaign manager for Lisa Herbold, cautions that while "the [late] ballots definitely do tend to trend left," that only holds in Seattle. In Spokane, where he says he's spent the past five years doing campaign work, no such trend holds.

Well then, speaking only of Seattle, can we reckon a rule of thumb that applies to this year?

Yep. Looking at the districts with clear left/right (or left/less-left) candidates, there's a clear shift between election night results and the current vote count. Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Michael Maddux, and Jon Grant all gained significant ground on their opponents, though it wasn't enough to push the latter two over the top. (Sawant was ahead on election night, and has widened her lead as the vote count continues.)

Sol Villarreal, Community Engagement Coordinator under the McGinn administration, says the late-lefty phenomenon is partly driven by a generational divide. "Overall," he says, "the people who vote later in the process tend to be younger and younger people tend to be more progressive."

David Ammon, former AP reporter and communications director for the Washington Secretary of State, is skeptical of any broad conclusions. "It really depends on what has motivated voters to turn out," he says, and the dynamics of the campaign. "I don't think you can make an overall rule of thumb that the late vote is trending [to the left]."

But a local, momentary rule of thumb is enough for Herbold. "There was a chant at my election night party: 'Procrastinators for Herbold!'," she says. She thinks that late, lefty voters might just be more thoughtful, judicious voters. "Late voters maybe want to know that they have all the information," she says.

Thomas agrees: "More conservative voters have a better idea of where they stand," she says, "whereas left leaning voters want to actually take time to learn about the candidates."

On the other hand, it's also possible that late voters are more impressed by eleventh-hour electioneering.

The late-left swing can also be attributed to ground game, according to Thomas. "Meaningful efforts and aggressive fieldwork happen in the last two weeks of the campaign," she says. The I-122 Honest Elections campaign, for which Thomas went to work after her bid for council ended in the August primary, "went from having five peopel out to canvas in September to having sixty people in the last weekend of the election," she says.

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