In the election of November 8, 2016, Washington voters re-elect Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951), U.S. Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), and the nine of the state's 10 members of Congress who are seeking re-election. State Senator Pramila Jayapal (b. 1965) defeats fellow Democratic legislator Brady Walkinshaw (b. 1984) to win the one open U.S. House seat, from which Democrat Jim McDermott (b. 1936) is retiring after 14 terms. In the presidential race, former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton (b. 1947) carries Washington, with its 12 electoral votes -- although four of the 12 electors pledged to her will vote for other candidates when electoral votes are cast. Nationwide Clinton has 2.8 million more popular votes than real-estate developer and television personality Donald Trump (b. 1946), but Trump wins enough states to gain a victory in the Electoral College and the presidency. Washington voters approve initiatives raising the state minimum wage to $13.50 per hour by 2020 and allowing courts to prohibit people found to be a significant danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms, while rejecting the nation's first statewide ballot measure to impose a "carbon tax."
The Popular Vote and the Electoral Vote
As election results came in across the country, most attention focused on Donald Trump's surprising-to-many victory in the race for president -- as late as Election Day, many pollsters and pundits were predicting that Hillary Clinton would become the nation's first woman president. In fact, Clinton won the nationwide popular vote by a substantial margin, with 65,794,399 votes to 62,955,202 for Trump. However, under the United States Constitution, the Electoral College, not the popular vote, decides the presidency, and Trump won enough key swing states to gain the needed majority of electoral votes. In most states, including Washington, all of the state's electoral votes, which amount to the total of that state's U.S. senators and representatives (giving Washington 12), are cast by electors who have been nominated by the party whose candidate wins the state's popular vote and have pledged to vote in the Electoral College for that candidate. Trump won enough states to have 306 electors pledged to vote for him, well above the 270 required to win, while Clinton had only 232 electors.
As it turned out, when the Electoral College votes were cast on December 16, seven electors voted for a candidate other than the winner in their state who they had pledged to vote for. That fact, although it did not affect the outcome, made history because seven was a higher number of "faithless electors" (as those who fail to vote for the candidate they have pledged to are often called) than in any previous election. And more than half of that record number were electors from Washington.
In reliably Democratic Washington (the last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was Ronald Reagan in 1988), Clinton easily outpolled Trump, winning 54 percent of the vote to his 38 percent, while a slew of other candidates, led by Libertarian Gary Johnson with 5 percent, split the remainder. Thus Clinton was in line to receive all 12 of the state's Electoral College votes. But when the 12 electors pledged to vote for Clinton gathered in Olympia on December 19, four of them cast their votes for other people. Three voted for Republican Colin Powell (b. 1937), like Clinton a former secretary of state, and one for Faith Spotted Eagle (b. 1948), a Yankton Sioux politician active in the movement against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Three electors from other states joined the four from Washington in voting for a candidate other than their state's winner. One from Hawaii, which Clinton won, voted instead for her Democratic primary rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (b. 1941). And two from Texas, which Trump carried, voted for other Republicans (Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Representative Ron Paul). With those seven defections, the final Electoral College vote was 304 for Trump and 227 for Clinton.
In 2016, no provision of law in Washington required the state's electors to vote for the candidate they were pledged to, but state statutes did make an elector who failed to do so subject to a fine up to $1,000. That law was enacted following the 1976 election, when Gerald Ford won the state but one of the electors pledged to vote for him instead voted for Ronald Reagan, who Ford had defeated in the state's Republican primary that year. Ten days after the 2016 electoral votes were cast, on December 29, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (b. 1962) applied the statute and fined the "faithless electors" who did not vote for Clinton $1,000 each.
The electors appealed the fines, arguing that the federal constitution gives electors discretion in who to vote for and that the state fine unconstitutionally interfered with the federal electoral process and their free-speech rights. The appeal was rejected by an administrative judge, a superior court judge, and then in May 2019 by the state Supreme Court, which held that the fine was constitutional. Three of the electors appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which in July 2020 affirmed the state court decision, ruling that states have the authority to require electors to vote for the candidate chosen by state voters.
In 2019, while the appeal was still pending, the state legislature amended the law governing presidential electors to ensure that in the future Washington's electoral votes all go to the winner of the popular vote in the state. Instead of imposing a fine, the new law, the "Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act," provides for the selection of alternate electors equal to the number of electors and authorizes the Secretary of State to appoint an alternate if an elector's position becomes vacant. Under the law, a position is deemed vacant if the elector does not vote for the candidate she or he has pledged to support, and the "faithless" elector will therefore be replaced, with the process repeated as necessary until electors are selected who vote for the candidate who has won the state popular vote.
The 2016 contests for Washington's seats in Congress provided little suspense. The state's senior United States Senator, Democrat Patty Murray (b. 1950), and nine of its ten members of the House of Representatives ran for re-election, and all won easily. Murray defeated Chris Vance, a former King County Council member, state legislator, and chair of the state Republican Party, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. In doing so Murray, who was first elected in 1992, became only the third person from the state to win five terms as a U.S. Senator, joining legendary Democratic predecessors Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), who each won six consecutive terms.
The only Congressional race without an incumbent on the ballot was in the state's Seventh District, encompassing most of Seattle, where Democrat Jim McDermott, who was first elected in 1988, was retiring. In the heavily Democratic district, both candidates to succeed him were also Democrats -- State Senator Pramila Jayapal and State Representative Brady Walkinshaw. Jayapal prevailed with 56 percent of the vote. Born in India, she became the first Indian American elected to the U.S. Congress.
The Seventh District was one of two in which both candidates in the general election were from the same political party, a result made possible by the "top two" primary system used in Washington since 2008. In the Fourth District, located in Central Washington and as heavily Republican as the Seventh was Democratic, two Republicans faced off in a rematch of the district's 2014 contest, the first Congressional race in state history to feature two finalists from the same party. Dan Newhouse (b. 1955), who had narrowly beaten fellow Republican Clint Didier (b. 1959) to win the seat two years earlier, easily took the rematch with more than 57 percent of the vote.
The eight other House of Representatives races featured traditional two-party contests, with the incumbent winning handily in each -- Democrats Suzan DelBene (b. 1962) in the First District, Rick Larsen (b. 1965) in the Second, Derek Kilmer (b. 1974) in the Sixth, Adam Smith (b. 1965) in the Ninth, and Denny Heck (b. 1952) in the Tenth, and Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler (b. 1978) in the Third District, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (b. 1969) in the Fifth, and Dave Reichert (b. 1950) in the Eighth.
The two highest-profile state officials, Governor Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson (b. 1965), both Democrats, won second terms. Inslee defeated Republican Bill Bryant with 54 percent of the vote, and Ferguson trounced Libertarian Joshua Trumbull with 67 percent. The state's Democratic governor and attorney general quickly positioned themselves as leaders in the opposition to the incoming Trump administration. Ferguson, with Inslee's support, filed the first of many lawsuits challenging Trump policies within days of the January 2017 inauguration, and by early 2019 Inslee was among the large crowd of Democrats seeking the party's nomination to challenge Trump's bid for re-election.
In other state races, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman was also elected to a second term, while Democratic Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler won a fifth term. Democratic State Senator Cyrus Habib (b. 1981) won the office of Lieutenant Governor, from which Brad Owen retired after five terms. Habib, who lost his sight following a childhood illness, became the highest-ranked Iranian American official in the country.
All three justices of the state Supreme Court who were up for re-election -- Barbara Madsen (b. 1952), Mary Yu (b. 1957), and Charles Wiggins (b. 1947) -- won by large margins. Wiggins's victory came despite what a Seattle Times article described as an "all-out effort to deny ... Wiggins another six-year term, mounted by a group of billionaires" (Miletich). Among the contributors to two political-action committees that targeted Wiggins and supported his opponent, Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson, were Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (b. 1955); Vulcan, the company controlled by fellow Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018); and Kemper Holdings, run by Bellevue real estate developer Kemper Freeman Jr. (b. 1941). Wiggins was criticized for writing a decision that overturned a child-pornography conviction because of constitutional violations and for supporting the court's decision to overturn the state's charter-school law, which Gates strongly supported. (The state legislature revised the law in accordance with the court decision.)
Control of the Washington State Legislature remained divided, with each party in charge of one chamber. Technically the Democrats had small majorities in both chambers, outnumbering Republicans by 50 to 48 in the House of Representatives and by 25 to 24 in the Senate. But while their two-vote majority in the House gave Democrats control of leadership there, in the Senate one Democrat, Senator Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, caucused with the Republicans, as he had in past sessions, and that allowed Republicans to hold the Senate leadership positions.
State and Local Ballot Measures
Following up on prior elections in which they successfully promoted local measures to increase the minimum wage, including in the cities of SeaTac and Seattle, labor unions and other advocates for low-wage workers took the movement statewide in 2016. Initiative 1433 called for an increase in the state minimum wage from its current $9.47 per hour (with a scheduled 6-cent increase in 2017), to $11 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12.00 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020, with annual adjustments for inflation after that. I-1433, which also required employers to provide paid sick leave, won 57 percent of the vote despite opposition from some business groups.
State voters also approved Initiative 1491, a gun-safety measure that authorized courts to issue "extreme risk protection orders" prohibiting people found to pose a significant danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms, on the request of family or household members or law-enforcement officers. It was the third gun-control measure decided in the past two years. In the 2014 election voters had faced dueling initiatives from advocates on opposite sides of the issue, approving one of the nation's strictest background-check requirements for gun purchases and rejecting a competing gun-rights measure that have prohibited the state from imposing any background checks except as required by federal law. I-1491 was also sponsored by gun-control advocates but, in contrast to the hotly contested background-check measures two years earlier, it generated little opposition and won nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Voters soundly defeated Initiative 732, an effort to reduce pollution and help slow climate change, which would have imposed a carbon-emission tax on fossil fuels and electricity generated by fossil fuels, while seeking to offset that tax increase with a reduction in the state sales tax and some manufacturing taxes. Although I-732 won the support of some environmental groups, others opposed it, including the Sierra Club and Washington Conservation Voters, as did Governor Inslee, a vocal advocate for fighting climate change. One significant reason for the opposition was the conclusion by state budget analysts that the measure would significantly reduce state tax revenues -- a conclusion that initiative supporters sharply disputed. Had it passed, I-732 would have been the first statewide ballot measure in the country to establish a carbon tax, but it was rejected by 59 percent of the voters.
Initiative 1464, a proposed reform of state campaign-finance laws, was also defeated. It would have established a public-financing system for political campaigns in which voters could direct up to three $50 "democracy credit contributions" ("Voters' Guide") to state legislative candidates in each election cycle, with the money coming from state funds. I-1464 would also have restricted lobbying by former state officials and, to provide funding for the public campaign financing, would have repealed the nonresident exemption from the state sales tax. Although Seattle voters had approved a similar "democracy voucher" election-finance system the year before, state voters rejected I-1464 with nearly 54 percent voting no.
In Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties, the three served by the regional Sound Transit agency, voters approved an additional $54 billion in taxes over 25 years for further expansion of the agency's light-rail and other transportation systems. Proposition 1, also known as Sound Transit (ST) 3 because it was the agency's third voter-approved funding measure, following original funding approval in 1996 and ST2 in 2008, was the largest tax increase in state history and the second-largest local transit measure in U.S. history, behind only a Los Angeles measure also approved in the 2016 election. ST3 provided for expansion of the Sound Transit light-rail system by 62 additional miles and 37 more stations beyond those previously funded, to a total of 116 miles by 2041. It also included increases in express bus and Sounder commuter train service in the three-county region.
In other local measures, King County voters approved making the office of King County Prosecuting Attorney officially nonpartisan, following their decision in 2008 to make all other county offices nonpartisan. And voters in three south King County school districts -- Auburn, Highline, and Kent -- gave the needed 60 percent approval to bond measures for new school construction in each district.