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Voter turnout in this part of Tacoma is very low. But some residents are trying to change that

A silhouette of a house with a ballot inside.
Cara Kuhlman
KNKX Graphic via Canva
Having stability in your life and a habit of voting the same way at the same address over and over is a "real boost" to turnout, according to Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley.

It’s a few days before Halloween. The sunset is spreading over Tacoma’s South End, where yards are covered in decorations. There’s a 10-foot-tall ghost with claws; candy-rainbow-colored cobwebs; two dinner-plate-sized googly eyes on some shrubbery.

About to brave their way past the witches and ghouls is a small band of door-knockers with a group called Tacoma For All. They’re getting some training from organizer Zev Cook.

"We're gonna break down the parts of the script and practice them one by one," Cook said, handing them clipboards.

Cook is experienced; she started off door-knocking for Bernie Sanders in 2016. She takes them through the issue: Since 2018, the average rent in Tacoma has gone up almost $500 a month, according to Zillow.

"'We're trying to change that with our Tenant Bill of Rights that's on your ballot as Initiative One,'" Cook recited, not even glancing at the script.

The initiative includes relocation assistance for rent hikes over 5%, limits evictions during the winter, and during the school year for educators and families with kids in schools.

Two trainee door-knockers pair off to practice the spiel and the direct asks. They're not seasoned political operatives — for one, it's her first time — but like Cook, they live right around here.

Behind most of these doors they’re about to knock on, are people who don’t usually vote.

'Homeownership definitely matters'

The South side of Tacoma (including the South End area and what's usually referred to as "South Tacoma," which is on the other side of Interstate 5) consistently has the lowest turnout of almost anywhere in the state. In last year’s midterms, it was 45% – almost 20 points lower than the statewide average.

But Tacoma For All is undeterred. They're trying to hit every door they can — even in areas like 90th and South Hosmer Street, where in the 2021 mayoral election, only 49 of the 517 registered voters turned in their ballots. (Though that was the lowest-turnout precinct in the city in that election, it was beaten for lowest turnout in the state by a precinct southward in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where only 33 of nearly a thousand registered voters completed a ballot.)

"In a district like this, you've got a lot of voters who may or may not even participate in the presidential election. Many people didn't return that ballot," said Ben Anderstone, a political consultant and self-declared "data guy" from Tacoma.

Ask political scientists why that is, and there's a string of answers — it's working-class, low-income, younger, and racially diverse — and much of it has to do with the fact that people who rent, who move around more and are at risk of eviction, are usually the ones least likely to vote.

"The more people are in rental housing, the lower those precincts have turnout," said Todd Donovan, a professor at Western Washington University.

"Having stability in your life and having, you know, a habit of voting the same way at the same address over and over is a real boost to turnout," said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley.

"Homeownership definitely matters," said Mark A. Smith, a professor at University of Washington. "That's basically an indicator for how long have you been in the community? How attached are you to it?"

It's also an indicator of income. Renters can stay in one place a long time and become habitual voters — if the rent doesn't skyrocket or the landlord doesn't evict them. So usually campaigns, especially when they don’t have a lot of money or resources, focus on persuading the people who most likely will vote, like homeowners.

Back in the South End, the newly-trained volunteers fan out. Cook hits a homeowner's house pretty soon after the training. She goes through the spiel.

"That sound like policies you would support?" she asked. An older man in a WSU hoodie tries to shush his barking basset hound. He asked not to be identified.

"I need to study more and get into the details of it," he said. "But yeah."

Others are stridently against: one man, who didn't share his name, told Cook his friends who are small landlords will sell their properties if the measure passes. Landlords and the National Association of Realtors raised $365,000 to defeat the measure.

Election and turnout results

People now have mostly taken down their Halloween decorations. The election has passed.

Turnout in the southern part of Tacoma was a little over 26%, by Anderstone's analysis. That’s in line with what’s typical for off-year elections; a little higher than 2021, but lower than 2019. Of course, it’s more than double that in the wealthier and more predominately white North End.

On Tuesday, with only a hundred estimated ballots left to count, Tacoma for All's initiative was just 361 votes ahead. Downtown and Hilltop neighborhoods were hugely supportive of it; the waterfront areas, Northeast and Old Town were against it.

South Tacoma and the South End went 55% for the measure, by Anderstone's calculation.

The people who voted there may have tipped the scales.

KNKX Connects is an ongoing series showcasing the people and places of our diverse and vibrant region. Your support helps KNKX connect listeners throughout Western Washington, presenting a much deeper look at the place we call home. Donate to this vital community service today.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.