History, politics, people of Oly WA

Author: Emmett O'Connell (Page 1 of 170)

Will Thurston County deaths outstrip births again?

Last year’s population estimates were historic in Thurston County, for at least one reason: for the first time since records have been kept, the number of annual births were outpaced by deaths. The county still saw a population increase because of in-migration. But, even those numbers were relatively flat, keeping with a recent trend of steady (if historically median) in-migration. Since the historic in-migration in Thurston County in the 1970s, the number of people moving here has bounced between 2,000 and 5,000 people each year, despite the increase overall in population.

The data below is based on last year’s population data release from the state.

In regard to how we got to a negative natural population increase, it looks like a combination of a flat birth rate since the recession and a rapid increase in deaths in the last few years. I’m not an epidemiologist, but it seems likely that the natural decrease is probably a combination of the impacts of generational population change (baby boomers getting older), obviously Covid and a flat birth rate.

One thing I’ll definitely want to do with the chart above is change it from raw population data to growth by year as a percentage to give a clearer trend from the 1970’s massive growth to today.

But now let’s look at the historic battle between birth and death:

Underlying data on births v. deaths in Thurston County

Source: Populations estimates (OFM)

While the gap in deaths vs. births was tightening in recent years, mostly because of the flat birth rate, the pandemic spiked deaths in Thurston County, driving the total number of deaths above births.

But, well we zoom out, we see that Thurston County is not alone in losing the battle with death.

Thurston County’s situation seems to be part of a statewide trend across all counties starting a decade or so back. Here are all natural change totals as a percentage of population, colored for increase (blue) or decrease (red):

Underlying data on county level natural population change.

Source: Components of population change (OFM)

Generally speaking, Washington counties had healthy natural population increases until the mid to late 1980s, and then they began sliding downward.

There seems to be a fascinating correlation in this particular data that deserves more exploration. The leading counties in this trend seem to follow a particular model. The counties that led the trend in this decline fall into two general groups: Pacific, Wahkiakum, Clallam, and Jefferson (declining Olympic Peninsula timber counties) and Garfield and Columbia (tiny upper Snake farming communities).

Bill and Tony Norton and the criminalizing of candidate names in Washington State

At the eleventh hour, a similar name appeared in the candidate filing for what was poised to be a contentious political contest. Rumors swirled and recriminations between the men ignited over two elections. Throughout 1942 and 1943, two men vied for the Democratic nomination for King County Sheriff and later for Seattle City Council, fueling a saga that inspired legislation aimed at clarifying such pooperhousery, which still carries weight today.

Just last week, conservative activist Glen Morgan orchestrated the filing of two other men named Robert Ferguson, sharing the name with the state Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate, Bob Ferguson. Both men withdrew their candidacies by Monday’s deadline, citing the original Ferguson’s reference to a 1943 law that prohibited poophousing similar-name campaigns.

In spring 1943, Tony Norton, a former Seattle Police Chief and sheriff’s department captain, had filed to succeed an outgoing sheriff.

Meanwhile, William Norton held a seat on the Seattle City Council and chaired its public safety committee.

Although Tony Norton had a well-established campaign, announcing his filing in March 1942, it was City Councilmember Bill Norton who managed to submit his candidacy just in time. Tony suspected foul play:

“I approached Bill Norton, and he denied any involvement in such a scheme. Even Norton’s acquaintances echoed similar sentiments. Yet, to my surprise, Norton filed, leaving the public to draw its own conclusions.”

To his credit, Bill Norton conducted what could now be viewed as a genuine campaign. Advertisements for his candidacy appeared in the Seattle Times, highlighting his grasp of modern policing, efforts in public safety on the city council, and a commitment to good governance.

In the 1942 Democratic primary for King County Sheriff, the Nortons finished third and fourth, respectively. Had all Norton supporters consolidated their votes, they would have surpassed the leading Democratic candidate by several thousand votes. Nonetheless, Harlan Callahan, the leading Republican contender, outpaced even the combined Norton vote by several thousand.

When Tony Norton challenged Bill Norton for his city council seat in early 1943, it was Bill’s turn to retaliate. He pointed to a municipal league statement alleging that Tony Norton, in his roles as both Seattle Police Chief and a King County sheriff captain, was “long identified with lax law enforcement in King County.”

Tony Norton’s advertisements struck a notably different tone, urging “WAKE UP, LABOR!” and warning that “Voting liberal is crucial to preserving your rights, as the reactionaries will vote!”

In the March primary, Tony Norton finished a distant fifth. The top three finishers were automatically elected (which is an interesting election system that we don’t use today), showcasing the potential impact of similar names on the race. The top two candidates received 28,000 and 25,000 votes respectively. Incumbent Bill Norton secured a somewhat distant third with over 19,000 votes, potentially harmed by some of the 11,000 votes Tony Norton garnered in fifth place.

Amidst the heated city council race, one of Seattle’s most influential politicians metaphorically slammed his hand on the table, demanding that the Nortons “knock it off.” Representative John L. O’Brien, who would later serve as Speaker of the House in the 1950s and have the state office building housing the House of Representatives named after him, introduced HB 57. This bill was a resurrection of an earlier failed attempt in 1941, apparently reignited by the Battle of the Nortons.

Interestingly, the 1941 bill was part of a larger reform package that aimed to overhaul Washington’s entire election system, which still retained the Blanket Primary system. Prior to the current Top Two system, voters could participate in an open partisan primary where they could vote for their preferred candidate from any major party. The 1941 reform proposed keeping voters in one lane and, in some cases, establishing a state-sanctioned endorsement process for political parties.

HB 57 was signed into law just over a week after the Seattle City Council primary, effectively curbing the Norton strategy of electoral poophousery for decades.

In a peculiar epilogue to the saga, Tony Norton passed away in September 1943 while undergoing emergency surgery in Okanagan County.

Re-examining the out-of-town (or just corporate) real estate investment in Thurston County

Back in July 2021, I took a deep dive into the number of houses that were owned by corporate out-of-town investors. What I found then was the scale of investment was within the bandwidth of what could be expected.

It turns out I chose about the least opportune time to take a snapshot of corporations buying single-family homes. I didn’t track it at the time, but 2021 and 2022 were the largest years for this kind of transaction in the records I found. My first look was just a bit too early to catch it.

In this analysis, I will take a look at the four largest corporate owners of single family homes in Thurston County. I’ve been trying hard for months to finish this post, so the data I used is a few months out of date (January 2024). I assume nothing major has happened since then.

Counterintuitively, two of the four corporations are headquartered here in Thurston County: Rob Rice Homes and Walter Cox Company. The other two are out-of-town corporations, Invitation Homes (from Dallas) and Home Partners (Chicago). That said, their portfolios are on a completely different scale.

Prior to 2016, Rob Rice and Walter Cox were pretty much the only institutional buyers in Thurston County. Home Partners began to purchase in 2016 and then really took off in 2021. Invitation Homes not only appeared on the scene in 2022, but dominated the market, changing the scale altogether. Their 121 homes purchased just in 2022 was just a couple dozen shy of all the homes purchased by the top four since 1995.

It is worth noting that while Invitation dominated, Walter Cox (headquartered in Lacey) also bought more homes in 2022 than they had in any other year.

Comparing these purchases of the top four across the entire housing transactions in the county, you see the percentage go from barely perceptible to actually measurable (above 3 percent of all transactions) in 2022.

What is interesting is 2022 was not necessarily a banner year in home sales in Thurston County. The year prior was the all-time peak, with 2022 representing a cyclical slide down. These purchases also came at a time when mortgage rates were sliding up. The average price was also still climbing in 2022. These three combined: total sales sliding down, mortgage costs increasing with the climb in sale prices not abating, seemed to have combined to mean a mixture of circumstances that benefited corporate purchasers.

Despite this, the out-of-town ownership level in Thurston County (not counting our two local owners) is not high compared to the rest of the country. The Owned Away From Home analysis by Regrid:

Let’s talk geography:

Generally speaking, all the top four are clustered towards the edges of the northern Thurston County cities, especially towards southern Lacey and Hawks Prairie. There are some definite clusters:

  • Home Partners and Invitation are pretty typical, but with strong clusters in Hawks Prairie.
  • Almost all of Walter Cox houses are in two or three neighborhoods along College in Lacey.
  • Rob Rice follows a similar pattern, but with a broader reach out towards Tumwater.

Years built

This is interesting, because unlike the hockey stick of the purchase-by-year chart, the homes built-by-year is different. While there is a peak in newer homes by local Rob Rice in 2022 and 2023, most of the homes purchased have an average age of at least 10 years. Meaning, even though they’re newer than the average home in Thurston, they weren’t being bought directly from developers, but by individual sellers.

I’m not sure if I’m ready for a total revamp of my opinion about corporate ownership of single family homes. I feel there’s a bit of classist hand wringing about this phenomenon that doesn’t exist for people living in apartments owned by large out-of-town corporations. Additionally, apartments aren’t for everyone and buying isn’t for everyone. Not everyone lives in a place long enough to make buying a home make a lot of sense. And we shouldn’t relegate those folks to apartment living if they don’t want to. So, the moral framing of corporate ownership of single family homes doesn’t do it for me.

That said, a recent discussion in the Strong Towns community makes an argument that I do find compelling. That this isn’t an issue on a broad countywide or national level, but rather on the neighborhood level. Additionally, it can theoretically be a problem, especially with out-of-town owners causing a decline in the economic fate of a neighborhood. And, we know that corporate ownership in Thurston County is clustered in certain neighborhoods, so it is worth exploring that risk.

Getting back to the Regrid research, they find a correlation between household incomes and out of town ownership. They created a map that compares incomes against out of town ownership. Again, they didn’t measure all corporate ownership, just the ones that weren’t near where they owned homes. In Thurston County, they found one neighborhood in West Olympia that had a high correlation between low incomes and high out-of-town ownership:

What is interesting is that the neighborhoods with high clusters of corporate ownership in Hawks Prairie and south of Yelm Highway in eastern Lacey that aren’t on this map.

What further research I would like to see is taking an even finer comb to the Thurston data and measure parcel-by-parcel in the really high cluster neighborhoods and see what developments have the highest percentage of out of town ownership. Now that I think of it, it woudn’t be that difficult, but it is a measure for another post.

Why Do Young People Vote Less? Reframing the Narrative Through Brain Development

This isn’t normally what you come to this blog for. But I wanted to share an essay I have been working on for a few months on youth voting:

Implications of Brain Science on Youth Voting

There’s tons more context below, but my main point of posting this essay it to get input. So, read on, but also read the essay and let me know what you think. Comments are on in the essay itself.

My experiences during the 2020 election prompted me to re-examine two persistent themes:

  1. The stubbornly low voter turnout among those under 40 and
  2. The ongoing wonder of brain development, an aspect I’ve observed firsthand as I cruise through my 40s and my own children approach adulthood.

My social media often echoes during elections with despair over young voter apathy, with cries of “Why don’t they care?” practically handing the future over to “the old people.” However, my years immersed in local government and political discourse have led to a new question: are we asking the right questions about youth participation?

This is not an exhaustive academic study, though I do cite relevant scholarly evidence. Rather, it is an exploration informed by my own experience. I’ve been a local newspaper reporter, I’ve done a local politics blog as a hobbyist, I have co-hosted a local politics podcast and served as a library trustee, I’ve been deeply engaged in the civic sphere. Currently, I am in a communications role for a local office elections office. So, this essay is not a thorough academic study, but framed on years of accumulated wealth of firsthand observations.

The point is: what if brain development holds a key to understanding the youth voting conundrum? Between the ages of 20 and 40, crucial non-cognitive skills – resilience, self-control, and decision-making – essential for navigating the complexities of voting, undergo significant maturation. This might explain the existing age gap in voter participation and render traditional solutions, such as early civic education, somewhat inadequate.

This suggests we may need to consider alternative approaches. Could compulsory voting, a wider spectrum of political choices, or even non-voting forms of participation like town halls prove more effective in engaging younger citizens?

Like I said, this isn’t normally what I post on this blog. I took the time to do some research and frame my thoughts, but I’m mostly interested in feedback. You can drop a comment here, comment on the essay itself, or contact me some other way to let me know if you think I’m heading in the wrong direction or whatever.

What statewide partisan identification could mean for 2024 elections and beyond

Washington voters seem increasingly engaged in politics, yet not through stronger party identification. This could spell trouble for Republicans, as it hasn’t translated into significant gains for them.

I’ve been tracking party identification data in Washington for years, and the past six years have revealed some intriguing trends. 

Link to my spreadsheet here

Since Washington doesn’t register by party, partisan identity is fluid and personal, constantly evolving based on individual choice or poll responses.

Overall, Democratic identification has steadily grown since the 1990s, becoming dominant in the past decade. Republican identification has consistently shrunk during this period, while the independent category has also declined, albeit at a slower pace.

But the data gets interesting when we dig deeper. For clarity, I’ve grouped the trends by Presidential eras, reflecting the nationalization of politics and its influence on state-level partisan identity.

A Peek at Two Recent Eras:

Obama era: Both Republican and Democratic identification declined, with independents becoming the plurality during Obama’s second term.

Trump era: Independent identification plummeted over 14 points in four years, with Democrats gaining the most (8.25%) and Republicans gaining less (1.25%).

Biden’s Early Presidency:

Now, after three years of Biden in office, clear trends emerge:

  • Democratic identification remains stable despite fluctuations among independents and Republicans.
  • Republicans have gained 1.70% since Biden, while independents have gained 6.73%. Notably, Democratic identification has only dropped 0.11% during this period.

The Mystery of Missing Responses:

The key lies in a rarely reported fourth category: “did not respond.” More people have started answering the party identification question again during Biden’s presidency, and those responses vary across polls. However, one thing is consistent: voters are re-engaging with the question.

Not All Roses for Republicans:

While Republicans and independents may be recovering some lost ground, it’s significant that those returning to the question aren’t siding with either party. Democrats still hold a comfortable lead in identification, despite the movement among other groups.

Looking Ahead:

If Biden is re-elected, a repeat of the Obama era endgame is possible. Independents might become the largest group statewide, while Democrats maintain their lead or decline slightly. During Obama’s presidency, this coincided with a Republican decline (-2.56%) and a rapid independent surge (+6.76%).

In conclusion, Washington voters are indeed becoming more politically engaged, but not necessarily through traditional party affiliation. This trend holds both opportunities and challenges for different political groups, with the potential for further shifts in the state’s political landscape.

The increase in Independent ID during the Obama era resulted in a unique phenomenon in Thurston County: local candidates successfully running and winning without either party label. This strategy has shown staying power, exemplified by incumbents like Gary Edwards retaining their seats. However, since the Trump era’s decline of the independent category, partisan-backed candidates like Tye Menser have unseated independents, and independents in open seats have struggled. The increase again during a potential Biden second presidency could mean a repeat of this trend.

This suggests that while independents might thrive in local, county-level races where statewide political norms hold less sway, a different breed of candidate would be needed to harness the potential surge in independent identification and launch a successful campaign for statewide or legislative office.

After “turn in your ballot on the last day” rhetoric, late ballots more than tripled and trended Republican

Vote on the last day advice from disinformation sources like Dr. Douglas Frank spread in Washington’s Third Congressional District last year.


When Joe Kent lost in an extremely close race last year, it followed months of advice from the candidate and others to Republican voters: submit your ballot at the last minute. This advice drew from the candidate’s experience in the August 2022 Primary, where Kent passed his opponent in the days after the first count, indicating that late voters propelled him over the top.

However, when Kent lost in the general, many people scrutinized the impact of the “vote late” advice.

Conservatives in the Southwest Washington district quickly reacted, with some asserting that the strategy of late voting did not help. In fact, the candidate himself reversed course just weeks after the election, explaining precisely why waiting to vote is a bad idea.

Essentially, life can get in the way. If you want to do something, do it early. Don’t wait and increase the chances that something else will stop you.

It’s also worth noting that the conspiracy theory underlying the “vote late” advice is baseless.

But, what I wanted to find out is whether the rhetoric had an impact on voter behavior. So, I analyzed available data on rejections and precinct results from the Secretary of State’s office for 2020 and 2022 in the WA3 and compared them side-by-side.

Two notable findings emerged:

Firstly, the number of late ballots more than tripled, despite a decline of 100,000 voters in the contest. In the 2020 election, with over 417,000 people casting ballots in the WA3, only 252 submitted ballots late. In 2022, despite a lower turnout of around 319,000 voters, 866 ballots were submitted late.

Here is the data file I worked from.

Second, late ballots shifted Republican between 2020 and 2022.

In 2020, voters in Democratic precincts were more likely to return ballots late.

In 2022, the trend line was much flatter.

An increase in late ballots from Republican precincts drove the overall increase in late ballots.

The bottom line is, though, the difference between the two candidates was more than 2,000 votes. While this is astronomically close, it is more than twice the difference in late votes that were not counted. That said, we obviously don’t have a count of possible Republican voters that didn’t even turn in a ballot because they realized they waited too long.

How to grow our local civic cultures and increase voter turnout: pay for it

Prologue: A bad year and two counties

This fall, Washington State saw the worst voter turnout ever. This could be surprising for advocates of Washington’s unique and open system of voting. In Washington, there is a ballot mailed to every registered voter, free-at-point-of-service ballot return, numerous free ballot drop boxes, same day voter registration, and many other progressive improvements to our voting system. Yet, our voter turnout (especially in odd-year, local-only elections) has been trending down.

Yet also, those improvements in our voting system have not been happening in a vacuum. Other forces have been forcing voter turnout down, and in fact, voter turnout would be falling faster and much lower if not for mail-in ballots and same day voter registration.

Many mark the decline of newspapers starting in 2005. This is about a half-decade before Washington’s vote-by-mail system was solidified statewide, and it illustrates the decline in our civic culture, while we were also 

My personal thesis on the act of voting is that it is about information, not access. While access to the ballot may be constrained in some places, it isn’t here (generally). What we are lacking, are lacking in larger amounts each year, is access to information on what is on the ballot. With each economic contraction in the last few decades, newspapers have continued to suffer. Historically, newspapers provide the most information for voters on what is on their local ballots. Even with local television and radio, they lack the market penetration and depth of reporting that is needed to cover Federal Way politics the same way Seattle City Council or statewide issues are covered. 

We can see the impact what remains of our media has on local voter turnout. Take the comparison between Thurston and Whatcom counties. Both counties are mid-sized in population for Washington counties and are on the I-5 corridor along Puget Sound in the suburban crescent of Seattle. Voter turnout in Thurston was below 40 percent. This wasn’t the lowest in recent history, but was in the neighborhood. Whatcom County was a statewide leader in turnout, breaking 50 percent, which was the highest of any county that wasn’t significantly smaller.

Both counties also had similar political landscapes this year. Both had public safety taxes on the ballot, both had important county-wide races. 

What separates Thurston from Whatcom was the level of media coverage available in either community. Olympia has one daily newspaper, and no other significant locally-based news producers.

Whatcom County has two local newspapers (the Bellingham Herald and the Cascadia Daily News). Even though both the Olympian and Herald are owned by the same hedge fund, it seems that the Herald in slightly smaller Whatcom County has more reporters than the Olympian (five compared to three). 

Whatcom County also has a local radio newsroom (KGMI). This is something Thurston County hasn’t had since KGY shut down their newsroom decades ago. 

This is a mostly back of the napkin analysis. Surely the existence of a local city club in Whatcom (no like organization exists in Thurston) and the particulars of campaign spending had an impact. But, from my point of view, the beefier media available in Whatcom likely had a significant difference in voter turnout. 

So what remains in front of us, is how to fund a repair in local media.

Why Washington needs a publicly funded Civic Information Network to address the local journalism crisis

Last year, the Washington State League of Women Voters correctly identified the most pressing issue facing our civic culture in Washington State. In their report “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy,” the League authors pointed to the sharp decline in the sustainability of local news organizations across Washington. Washington State communities are indeed in a journalism crisis, with rural communities being hit especially hard.

The analysis of the league falls short, though, when it came to describing what kind of public policy solutions are going to allow Washington communities to lead themselves out of the local news crisis. While it describes the opinion of those currently leading legacy news organizations that public funding is not necessary, it does not delve deeply into public funding examples currently being explored in other states.

This white paper will expand on the interview of Robert McChesney in the LWV report and an effort in New Jersey for publicly funded local journalism. I will also point out that Washington not only already publicly funds journalism, I will also propose that we copy at least one example of state legislature permitted funding. By using state funding models already used in Washington State, we can also create a system that maximizes local decision-making and community buy-in.

Background: Supporting Emergent Non-profit News Organizations

The approach to the crisis in local journalism in Washington State has been limited. The only policies of note passed by the legislature were to extend an already existing Business and Operation tax exemption and establish a journalism fellowship program.

This public policy approach does not mesh with the broader approach to how the local journalism crisis is being address nationwide. A cut in the B&O tax benefits legacy news organizations that are structured as for-profit organizations and were part of (or subject to) the mass decline in local media in recent decades. The new organizations that have been founded to address the need created by the local news crisis have largely been non-profit in structure. They do not benefit from a cut in a tax they already do not pay.

Washington State should invest in a public funding system for local news organizations. This system should be built on an opt-in basis on the county level. It should represent a willingness of local leaders to address the local news crisis.

Washington State already has an example of direct public funding in journalism, though it oftentimes escapes notice. While the statehouse news corp has collapse in recent years, the public funding of TVW has continued to allow average Washingtonians unfettered access to the legislative process and other events on the state-government level. TVW provides much more than gavel-to-gavel coverage of the state legislature. They provide some of the most valuable and in-depth coverage of state government in the state. According to TVW’s most recent federal non-profit filing, over 80 percent of their funding comes directly from state government. Even if there is a bright line between funds they use to produce “gavel-to-gavel” coverage and money for shows like “Inside Olympia” or “The Impact,” the more journalistic efforts of TVW obviously benefit from the larger institution built with government funds.

Every state budget passed since the formation of TVW includes a passage similar to this one:

“The legislature finds that the commitment of on-going funding is necessary to ensure continuous, autonomous, and independent coverage of public affairs. For that purpose, the secretary of state shall enter into a contract with the nonprofit organization to provide public affairs coverage.

The legislature should expand this commitment to “continuous, autonomous, and independent coverage of public affairs” from state government to every level of government across the State of Washington.

Public funding for local journalism would also put a focus on supporting local media for Washington’s non-profit and philanthropic communities. Currently, there are a handful of funds to support local journalism in Washington State (I found examples in Kitsap, King, Snohomish, Pierce and Yakima counties). All of these easily found examples fund only one-for profit and (mostly chain owned) media organization.

We are choosing to support organizations that have survived the wildfire, rather than the new green shoots of growth. We are working to sustain the organizations that were old and wealthy enough to make it survive, so far. Along the same lines, we are choosing communities that have enough wealth to support a for-profit news organization. Many of the communities have become news deserts in the last couple of decades tend to be poorer and more rural. It should not matter where you live for you to get reliable news about your government.

While supporting any local media outlet is laudable, we should find resources to support any local journalism organization, not just a legacy for-profit media organization.

Proposal: Sustainable Support for all local news

This proposal is based largely on the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. Similar to TVW, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is a non-profit organization that receives funding directly from the New Jersey state government on an annual basis. Unlike TVW, the NJCI distributes those funds to other news organizations to produce local coverage.

For example, in 2022, the NCJI funded: 

  • coLab (New Brunswick/Middlesex County) received a $40,000 grant for a program that will create a new community memory project in the Esperanza and Unity Square neighborhoods of New Brunswick. coLab and New Brunswick Tomorrow, in collaboration with Esperanza, a community-based Spanish-language creative storytelling project, are developing this initiative.
  • The Hammonton Gazette (Hammonton/Atlantic County) received e $35,000 grant to support freelance reporters who will cover municipal meetings in news deserts within Atlantic County and Camden County. This grant is awarded to the Gazette as a new funding opportunity, following their previous receipt of a first-round grant.

In the most recent state budget, the Washington legislature allowed up to $4 million in direct state funding to TVW. The most recent outlay to the NJCI was only $1 million. But these funds were spread across New Jersey to benefit communities of all sizes. 

Neither the NCJI nor the state government have any ownership of projects funded through the NCJI. Structurally, the NCJI is housed at a local media institute at Montclair State University and is a consortium of Montclair and five other state owned universities. The NCJI is governed by a board of 16, including the six member universities. Other board members include appointments by state legislative caucuses, the state governor, private industry and the public.

Community-based, Washington-centric

A Washington State Civic Information Network could very well copy New Jersey’s top-heavy, statewide approach. This “full-stack” approach could involve TVW as an organizing entity, the state library and also the six, public four-year higher education institutions. Much like the NCJI, this statewide organization would accept funding requests statewide and distribute the funds through a simple grant program.

But Washington and New Jersey are two very different states. New Jersey is about 20 percent the physical size of Washington, with more than 2 million more people. Washington includes many more rural communities and would likely benefit from a more diffused funding and decision-making structure to support local journalism.

Fittingly, there are Washington State based example of local project funding that may generate more buy-in, especially in rural communities that have been the hardest hit by the journalism crisis. Each of these examples are ways we can devolve decision-making or funding to the local level, allowing for the highest level of public buy-in statewide.

Salmon recovery lead entities

Washington’s approach to salmon recovery is a model for this bottom up, state-level approach. Funding for salmon recovery projects begin on the watershed level. Proposals are first vetted by so-called “Salmon Recovery Lead Entities.” After they are ranked locally, final funding decisions are made by the statewide Salmon Recovery Funding Board. Normally, the top project in each watershed is funded. Subsequently, ranked projects are then funded, depending on funding available at the statewide level. 

This option assumes a direct funding allocation from the state government that would be split across the state. In the salmon recovery example, a local non-profit or government entity steps up to become the “lead entity” to lead the public process of soliciting and vetting grants.

Housing and arts state/local funding

In recent years, the state legislature has allowed local governments to establish taxes to support housing (SHB 1416 in 2019) and the arts (SHB 2263 in 2015). While the former housing tax can be instituted on the council or commission level, the funding for the arts requires a vote of the people. Both are examples of a local community deciding on their own (either through an elected representative or directly through an election) that support for housing or the arts is a public need.

Both of these example also feature a grant-vetting decision process through a local board of some kind. This kind of local, transparent decision-making allow for decision-making to be made by the people most impacted and benefited by increased coverage. Like the salmon recovery example, local community funds, library districts or general local governments could step forward to lead the grant process.

Digital Advertising Tax

A suitable way to pay for local journalism is to tax the activity that is doing the most damage to the traditional ways of funding local journalism. Newspapers used to be the most effective ways to target customers in a local geography. But, with the advent of targeted digital advertising, only the most civic-minded and lose with money advertisers would choose a local newspaper over the Meta and Alphabet advertising platforms. However we choose to distribute public funds towards journalism, using a digital advertising tax would level the playing field by directing funds towards diverse news organizations, promoting a healthier media ecosystem.

It would act as a way to hold dominant digital advertising platforms responsible for the harms caused by their targeted advertising model, such as the spread of misinformation and data misuse. By taking a share of their profits, it incentivizes platforms to address these issues.

Maryland instituted a first-in-the-nation digital advertising tax in 2021. It is being challenged at both the state and local level, but it still in effect.

Conclusion: We need to pay for it

We have the examples and tools to fund local journalism in Washington, while also providing a firebreak between government and their watch dogs. TVW provides an example of state funding of journalism in Washington. The NCJI shows us how another state built a statewide grant program to fund many journalism efforts. By copying examples in salmon recovery, housing and the arts, we can even move the funding from statewide to organizations making funding decisions on a hyper-local level. 

As we continue through the journalism crisis, communities are finding new solutions to address their needs. These solutions are largely non-profit and digital first. While our legislature has addressed the crisis through a tax cut and fellowship program, these measures are initial steps that should be followed up with more direct funding.

School board races were much more interesting, and more confusing, this year (Thurston County election maps 2023)

The school board races in Olympia and North Thurston were a lot more interesting than these races usually are. Oftentimes, it seems, competitive school board races are debates are played under the table. Door-belling and interpersonal connections see to matter more than clearly stated policy position and interest-group endorsements.

But, that was before Moms for Liberty, trans-exclusionary policy debates and the issue of police in schools raised the nature of these races.

I have not spent a lot of time dissecting these races after-the-fact. So this is my first real go at it, in my memory. I’ll be especially unsure about how to read the maps for the North Thurston seats, since I don’t really look at Lacey on its own very much.

Olympia School District

The first two maps are for Hillary Seidel and Jess Tourtellotte-Palumbo.

Hillary Seidel in blue
Jess Tourtellotte-Palumbo in blue

Both of these maps are generally the same. Tourtellotte-Palumbo had a thinner margin of victory, so her territory is smaller. But her best precincts are the same as Seidel’s. They both did best closer to downtown Olympia, with their leads fading as they go further out of town.

The interesting map here is the race between sitting board members Maria Flores and Talauna Reed. Reed had been appointed by the board to serve in a westside district, but had moved before filing week to the eastside, so filed to run for the district seat currently filled by Flores. The problem for geography though is that both occupied nearly the same lane politically, with Flores being more towards the center of Reed’s leftward tilt.

Here is Maria Flores’ map:

This is a fairly dominant map, with Reed pulling only four precincts overall.

What is really interesting about the Flores/Reed race was that the voters noticed the crowded left-hand nature and started writing in other names. There were fewer than 130 write-ins in the first two races, but over 800 in the Flores/Reed race.

And those write-ins definitely trended towards where Flores was the strongest. Where voters were more likely to vote for Flores, more of them were also more likely looking for someone else.

This chart is Flores’ raw return against the percent of write-ins:

This chart shows the percentage of write-ins vs. the percentage difference for Flores against Seidel and Tourtellotte-Palumbo.

North Thurston School District

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Lacey and non-Olympia districts, but generally in how they relate to county-wide races. So, my observations here are pretty much based on a surface reading of the maps and numbers, with no additional insights or experience.

Michelle Gipson beat a sitting school board member with a map that was centered on older and denser precincts, with rural districts generally going to her opponent:

This is largely the same map Gretchen Maliska had in her race:

Esperanza A. Badillo-Diiorio’s map is strikingly different:

While on first blush, this map seems like the opposite map of Gipson or Maliska. This would mean that Badillo-Diiorio took an opposing path to victory, but was able to win enough cross over voters to beat Gipson or Maliska’s coalition. But from what we know about Badillo-Diiorio’s race, this isn’t likely to be true. Her opponent had pulled out of the race and endorsed her, leaving no real organized campaign to pull votes in another direction.

So, looking at all three races from a different perspective, you see an obvious correlation between Gipson and Maliska’s precinct returns.

For Badillo-Diiorio, though, her returns cut straight across the charts. Her good and bad precincts have no connection to the good and bad precincts in the other races. Which is confusing to me, especially since there weren’t more write-ins or undervotes in this race than the other ones. This leads me to believe that voters made their choice for Badillo-Diiorio using other information or motivation than they did in the other two races.

From an interesting kind of map to more typical maps in Thurston County’s general election (Prop 1 and County Commission races)

The maps for this year’s general election cover the range of fairly typical results and one rare kind of result.

Prop 1

Proposition 1 won 56 to 44 percent, which is a pretty decisive win in county politics. But it also reconnected parts of the county that aren’t normally voting together. Proposition 1 was mostly branded as a “public safety” tax, but it would have also given some money towards election security.

This map, which shows mixed results across both very urban and very rural precincts, is rare but not unknown in Thurston County politics. To illustrate this point, both College (arguably the most liberal precinct in the county) and Zenkner Valley (the most conservative) were in the bottom three of precincts for Yes votes.

The first time I saw this map in Thurston County, it was 10 years ago, when Sue Gunn beat Jeff Davis for the port commission. In the case of Gunn, the urban/rural connection was likely two-fold: urban voters who were attached to her pro-environmental message and rural voters who were attached to her anti-tax messaging.

In terms of Prop 1, I imagine this connection would be for urban voters who were voting against funding for police and rural voters who were just voting (again) against any kind of tax.

Interesting are the 12 pivotal precincts in the election for Sheriff Sanders last year. Sander’s map looked a lot like a Democrat/Republican map with more blue precincts near downtown Olympia and getting more conservative as you head out. And even though Sanders performed worse compared to the topline Democratic candidate (Senator Murray), there were a dozen or so precincts that went for Sanders but not Murray. All 12 of these precincts, though some of them fairly rural, passed Prop 1.

County Commission

These maps are more traditional Dem/non-Dem maps in Thurston County.

First, Wayne Fournier, who won 50 to 49:

This is about as bare bones as an inside to out Democratic map can be in Thurston County and still win. It is interesting that Vivian Eason did much better in Southeast Lacey than other non-Democratic candidates have done. And, we might have to start considering the rural precincts out west of Tumwater heading into the Black Hills as Democratic precincts.

Emily Clouse, who won 60 to 39 percent.

Same kind of map, but just more blue. There were a handful of precincts south of Tumwater that went for her, which is interesting. It is also worth noting she lost a couple of precincts by Johnson Point that I thought she had a chance at.

Where this map is most useful is to contrast her map with Fournier’s.

Because Clouse won by a higher percentage, it makes sense she did better (in blue) over the vast majority of the county. She even did marginally better in Tenino, where Fournier is mayor.

But, where Fournier did better was in the rural precincts around Tenino. This is probably evidence of Fournier’s work about a year ago to rally against sex offender housing in Maytown.

The (mostly) lack of evidence of the impact of race in Badillo-Diiorio/Scott race in for North Thurston Schools

For me, the most interesting election in the county this year was between a candidate for the North Thurston School district and her opponent, who had endorsed here.

In a more perfect world, no one would have voted for Stephanie Scott. She did not campaign and had endorsed Esperanza Badillo-Diiorio weeks before the primary election. But because she endorsed Badillo-Diiorio after the deadline to withdraw, Scott’s name remained on the ballot. And, probably more importantly, her candidate statement remained in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

In one of the oddest possible returns in the primary, Scott even finished ahead of Badillo-Diiorio for a few days as ballots were being counted before the primary was certified, possibly knocking a candidate she supported.

No one’s fault really, that’s just the way elections work. And, Scott did spend a lot of time campaigning for her opponent, so it wasn’t that big a surprise that Badillo-Diiorio will be certified the winner of the general election in a week or so.

But what I was interested in was the phenomena of two candidates with the names Badillo-Diiorio and Scott, where Scott was the candidate not really running.

Matt Barreto wrote an influential paper in 2012 (then a professor at the University of Washington) describing his finding of racism in the Yakima County results in a race between well-funded (and now Supreme Court Justice) Steven Gonzales and un-funded, non campaigning Bruce Danielson. Basically, Barreto compared the results for Danielson by precinct against those of other conservative candidates and found that Danielson would outperform those conservative candidates.

You can read Barreto’s entire study here.

Barreto’s example of an election impacted by racism looks like this:

Using a similar technique, the Badillo-Diiorio/Scott race looks like this:

Instead of using Republican candidates, I used the composite returns of the two non-Democrats (who could be fairly described as conservatives) who ran for countywide offices.

While Danielson outperformed the Republican in 100 percent of precincts, Scott only won 57 precincts compared to 49. Hardly a barn burner.

It is worth noting, that in Barreto’s analysis, he found racism impacting voting in Yakima and Grant counties (on the eastside) but did not find it in Snohomish County. It is very likely that Thurston County is more similar to Snohomish than Yakima or Grant.

What is left unaddressed here or in Barreto’s work, is why anyone would vote for a candidate who is actively not campaigning. Or, more specifically, in Scott’s case, endorsing and campaigning for their opponent.

I’m sure the lack of media coverage in the race had some impact. Most of what voters heard in this race likely came from the Voters’ Pamphlet, which did not provide a lot of difference between the two candidates. That seems to be born out in the results. Compared to the two other North Thurston school races, Badillo-Diiorio/Scott had more undervotes (people not voting at all) and write-ins.

So, in the end, it is likely just voters not entirely sure what to do. The majority of Scott voters likely would have voted for her opponent had they learned she was no longer in the race.

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