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The 2008 Election | A precinct-by-precinct review

Ballots from the 2008 Election are stored in sealed ballot boxes in Coupeville, awaiting a potential recount in the District 2 commissioner’s race. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Ballots from the 2008 Election are stored in sealed ballot boxes in Coupeville, awaiting a potential recount in the District 2 commissioner’s race.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

It was much more than another “blue wave.”

The Democratic deluge that hit Island County on Election Day was more like a blue tsunami. Beyond the historic and complete takeover of Island County’s board of commissioners, the Democratic Party swamped their Republican opponents in turnout and eroded the GOP’s traditional base of support on North Whidbey, according to a precinct-by-precinct analysis by The Record.

The success of Democrats in the 2008 Election easily rivaled the much-vaunted “Blue Tide” election of 2006, when Democrats picked up a seat on the board of county commissioners and tallied enough wins to control half of the elected positions in county government.

At the top of the ticket this year, Island County voted for Barack Obama for president, and he won with approximately 51 percent of the vote. It was just the second time the county has given a majority vote to a Democratic candidate for president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected in 1944. Before 2008, the last Democratic nominee to get a majority here was during the 1964 election, when Lyndon B. Johnson got 56 percent.

The scope of the Democratic gains were sweeping. Obama won the vote in 15 of the county’s 20 largest precincts, and the review of preliminary precinct returns by The Record shows Democrat-leaning precincts generally had more people casting ballots this election than precincts that have historically leaned to the right.

And the best turnout this election, in precincts where more than 90 percent of registered voters cast ballots, the Democrats won handily, winning 20 of 24 precincts.

Marshall Goldberg, chairman of the Island County Democrats, said the caliber of the candidates this election translated into a big turnout.

“This election cycle is unlike any that we’ve ever had before, starting from the presidential candidate all the way down,” Goldberg said.

“We also had five very good candidates at the district level and at the county level,” he said. “That may have encouraged people. I think people were excited about people at the bottom of the ballot this time.”

At the local level, Democrats have seized control of the three-member board of county commissioners. Helen Price Johnson unseated incumbent Republican Phil Bakke for the District 1 seat to become the first woman ever elected to the board. And if Democrat Angie Homola prevails in the recount against 16-year incumbent Mac McDowell, the Democratic Party will not only take control of the board of commissioners, but Democrats will occupy every seat on the board.

“We made history. We’re real pleased with that,” Goldberg said.

According to a review of precinct returns, Democrats easily outpaced Republicans in the precincts that had the highest turnout.

Out of Island County’s 65 precincts, 24 precincts had a 90-percent turnout rate or better. Democrats claimed the South End precincts of Austin, Clinton, Freeland, Sandy Point, Saratoga, Useless Bay, Lone Lake, Bush Point, Possession and Langley 1 and 2. Democrats also won the Central Whidbey precincts of Central, Greenbank, Lagoon Point, Prairie, Admiralty, Coveland and Coupeville 1 and 2, as well as the Utsalady Precinct on Camano Island.

Only four precincts with turnout above 90 percent went to the Republicans; Polnell on North Whidbey, the Oak Harbor-area precincts of West Beach and Hastie Lake, and Maple Grove on Camano Island.

In precincts where more than 1,000 voters cast ballots, Democrats won five of seven precincts; the Camano, Madrona and Driftwood precincts on Camano Island, Admiralty on Central Whidbey and Bush Point on South Whidbey. Republicans won Oak Harbor 15 and Maple Grove on Camano Island.

More telling, however, was the evaporation of Republican support for the GOP candidate for president in precincts across Island County.

Compared with the 2004 presidential race, turnout for the Republicans dropped in 60 of the county’s 65 precincts.

And in the five precincts where turnout improved in 2008 over 2004, the gains were tiny. Turnout was higher for the presidential vote for Republicans by 2 percent in the Polnell Precinct on North Whidbey; it climbed just .84 percent in Oak Harbor 4; rose by .07 percent in the Clinton Precinct; increased by 1 percent in the Freeland Precinct; and rose by .11 percent in Camano Precinct on Camano Island.

GOP vote drops

Turnout dropped for Republicans, however, by double-digit amounts in six precincts. The biggest decline came in Oak Harbor 11 and 12, where GOP turnout fell by 15 and 18 percent, respectively. In 32 precincts — nearly half of the county’s precincts — Republican turnout fell by 5 percent or more this year.

Democrats also made gains in historically Republican precincts.

Democratic commissioner candidates Price Johnson and Homola won the north end precinct of Ault, for example, and the in-city precincts of Oak Harbor 2, 5, 6 and 7, and Homola also won Oak Harbor 13.

McDowell, however, won the South End precincts of Double Bluff and Possession Point.

Other precincts were marked by close-fought battles.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire battled to a 123-vote tie with Republican Dino Rossi in Oak Harbor 1, a precinct that went Rossi’s way in 2004.

In the race at the top of the ticket, Obama drew almost even with Republican John McCain in three precincts where both candidates earned 48 percent of the vote. McCain slipped past Obama in Triangle Cove on Camano Island, 456 votes to 450; and in Oak Harbor 5, 149-147. Obama won Driftwood Precinct on Camano, 728-725.

Overall, Obama won just less than half of Island County’s 65 precincts; he took 32. McCain won the rest, 33.

McCain won all 20 Oak Harbor and in-city precincts, and all nine North Whidbey precincts.

Though other areas stayed true to form, Camano Island turned a bit bluer this year.

McCain won just two of Camano Island’s 10 precincts; Maple Grove and Triangle Cove.

Those two precincts on Camano went solidly for Bush in 2000 and 2004.

But six other precincts on the island that went for Bush in the last election — Countryclub, Livingston Bay, Madrona, Utsalady, Driftwood and Point Allen — went this year to Obama.

Elsewhere in Island County, every precinct on the South End gave a majority to the Democratic Party candidate, just as the precincts did in 2000 and 2004, as did the Central Whidbey area, the group of precincts that line Penn Cove from San de Fuca down island to south of Coupeville.

On the North End and in Oak Harbor, every precinct except Oak Harbor 7 voted along the same lines as the past two presidential elections, with Republicans earning the most votes. Oak Harbor 7, the exception, is different because the precinct sided with Al Gore and has leaned right ever since.

Measures rejected

The review of precinct votes, based on tallies through early Monday, shows the property tax measures on the ballot were defeated more soundly than the overall rejection numbers indicate.

The proposal to create a locally based power company to take over Puget Sound Energy’s territory on Whidbey Island fell with 66 percent of voters casting “no” ballots.

But 22 of 55 precincts voting on the idea rejected the PUD proposal with a 65 percent or higher “no” vote, including nearly the entire North Whidbey voting area except the Ault and Dugualla precincts, and all of the Oak Harbor-area precincts; Penn Cove, Scenic Heights, Swantown, Westview, Hastie Lake, Fort Nugent and West Beach.

On the South End, the Austin and Useless Bay precincts also had 65 percent or higher rejection rates for the proposal.

Both Langley precincts voted down the proposal with a 53 percent “no” vote. In Coupeville’s two precincts, it also failed, by 52 and 53 percent.

The “no” vote on the PUD proposal was 59 percent in Greenbank, 60 percent in Freeland and 63 percent in Clinton.

In volume of votes, the biggest rejection came in Oak Harbor 15, where 1,069 voters said “no” in a precinct that has 1,987 voters. Only 455 voted “yes.”

The PUD proposal, which was put on the ballot through a petition drive, suffered the fate of most of the other ballot measures. It failed in every precinct in the county. Not one majority in a single precinct across Whidbey and Camano islands gave it a 50-percent-plus-one vote.

The Port of South Whidbey’s proposal for an $8.2 million makeover of the Langley Marina was the exception in the crowd of measures based on property tax increases.

Though it failed with 67 percent casting “no” votes, the marina proposal did what every other proposal didn’t: It captured a majority in at least one precinct.

For the port, it was in Langley’s two in-city precincts, which gave the renovation effort a “yes” vote of 58 and 52 percent, with the higher numbers coming from the part of town that lies south of Fourth Street and east of Al Anderson Avenue.

Unfortunately for the marina project, it faced rough weather in every other precinct that voted on the measure.

The rejection rate rose from a cellar of 54 percent “no” in Sandy Point, up to 77 percent “no” in Bush Point and 80 percent “no” in Freeland.

It was bad elsewhere, too. Eight of the 15 precincts that voted on the marina makeover rejected it with a 70 percent or higher rate.

The story was similar for the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District proposal for a $15.2 million bond measure to pay for a new recreation and aquatic center. It failed at the ballot box with a 61 percent “no” vote.

The proposal went down without a majority in any of the district’s 15 precincts, but the depth of the defeat wasn’t as deep as the port’s. Only one precinct, Useless Bay, rejected the measure with a 70 percent or more no vote.

The property tax levy for the Port of Coupeville, which would have helped retire the debt on Greenbank Farm, also fell to defeat in every precinct in the port’s area. It mustered a 71 percent rejection rate from voters.

It went down biggest in the San de Fuca precinct, where it failed with an 84 percent “no” vote.

When ballots first started arriving in Island County’s all-mail election, turnout seemed to be going the GOP’s way. A Record analysis of ballots returned through Oct. 31 found that more ballots had been returned from precincts that have historically voted Republican in the previous two presidential elections than those mailed in from precincts that have voted for the Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004.

At the end, however, Island County picked a Democrat for president, one for governor and lieutenant governor, and for the Senate seat in the 10th Legislative District. Two Republican House members in the 10th District appear to have kept their seats, though.

Big gains made

Overall, Democrats had reason to celebrate beyond the potential pickup of two commissioners’ seats.

The county voted 51-45 percent for Obama in the presidential contest.

It was the first time in 44 years where the county had given a majority vote to the Democratic candidate for president.

President George Bush won Island County with 50 percent of the vote in 2004 and 48 percent in 2000.

And though the county picked Bill Clinton over George H. W. Bush in 1992, Clinton only received roughly 35 percent of the vote in a three-way race where Bush won 34 percent, and H. Ross Perot, 30 percent.

The county gave the elder Bush 58 percent of the vote in 1988, and chose Ronald Reagan with 65 percent of the vote in 1984 and 59 percent in 1980. Gerald Ford won Island County in 1976 with

56 percent of the vote, and Richard Nixon won in a landslide, with 69 percent of the vote, in 1972.

Gregoire also beat Rossi in the rematch in Island County, where she won by 260 votes, 49.2 percent to 48.5 percent, in the vote count through Monday. Gregoire lost by 3,105 votes in the contested election of 2004.

Voters drop out

Despite the high overall turnout in many precincts, thousands of Island County voters took a pass on local races.

In the District 1 commissioner’s race, for example, a total of 3,398 voters did not choose either candidate.

The number represents 8 percent of those who cast ballots.

In the District 2 commissioner’s race, a total of 3,950 voters — or 9 percent of voters — did not vote in the contest.

Bakke, the incumbent in District 1, said there may be different reasons why people who didn’t vote in his race, voted for up-ballot candidates.

He noted the primary challenge he faced by fellow Republican Reece Rose. Some pro-property-rights Republicans may have been turned off by Bakke’s past as a former regulator and director of the county planning department.

“Maybe some people didn’t think I was Republican enough,” he said.

Others may have been confused about his race after Homola, a candidate in the District 2 race, began criticizing Bakke after controversy erupted over her work history in the county planning department.

“Angie took me on, and some voters may have been confused about the race,” Bakke said.

John Gastil, a professor of communications at the University of Washington and the author of “Political Communication and Deliberation,” said it’s typical for candidates and campaigns on the bottom of the ballot to attract fewer voters. It’s the don’t-know/don’t-care phenomenon.

“It’s incredibly common,” said Gastil, a former campaign manager. “The simple answer is, people don’t care/people have no clue, and would be embarrassed to vote.”

“They vote for president, maybe they vote for governor, maybe they vote for an initiative they care about — then they are apathetic or lost.”

Media coverage of hot races at the top of the ticket can sometimes obscure local elections that would typically receive more attention, he added.

Gastil said the drop-off in votes can’t be blamed on voters not wanting to vote for either candidate on the ballot.

“We’re very familiar with voting for the lesser of two evils: Go with the devil you know,” he said.

Voters in Island County were more likely to sit out the District 2 race for Island County commissioner, rather than the District 1 race. That was especially true on South Whidbey.

The number of blank boxes — called “undervotes” — left on ballots in the District 2 race between Homola and McDowell hit 10 percent of the turnout or higher in 23 precincts; 13 were on the South End, six on Camano and four in the Oak Harbor area.

In the District 2 race, Oak Harbor residents were more likely than voters elsewhere in the county to not cast a vote in the Price Johnson-Bakke race. A total of 16 precincts in the county saw 10 percent of voters refuse to pick a candidate in the race; 14 of those precincts were in Oak Harbor or North Whidbey, two were on Camano Island.

Despite the press for voters to cast their ballots early, a review of processed ballots by date in the county elections office shows voters followed the pattern set during earlier elections.

An initial peak of ballots were returned by voters for counting just days after the ballots landed in mailboxes throughout the county, and the next highest peak of returned ballots came in the final, few days before Nov. 4.

Record writers Kelsie Fitzpatrick and Jeff VanDerford contributed to this report.

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