Washington voters set turnout record, support Barack Obama for president, re-elect Governor Christine Gregoire, and legalize assisted suicide on November 4, 2008.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/21/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8896
See Additional Media

In the election of November 4, 2008, a record-setting 84.6 percent of Washington registered voters cast ballots, most by mail in the weeks and days before the official election date. State voters overwhelmingly support Democratic Illinois Senator Barack Obama (b. 1961), who gains Washington's 11 electoral votes on his way to a 365-173 Electoral College victory over Republican Arizona Senator John McCain (b. 1936). Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) easily wins a rematch with Republican former State Senator Dino Rossi (b. 1959) and all nine of Washington's United States Representatives are also re-elected. Voters approve Initiative 1000, which authorizes terminally ill patients to obtain lethal prescriptions, making Washington the second state, after Oregon, to legalize assisted suicide.

Barack Hussein Obama

Barack Hussein Obama Jr., whose father was Kenyan and whose mother, Ann Dunham, was Caucasian American, became the first African American president of the United States. Given little chance when he announced his candidacy two years earlier, Obama defeated New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (b. 1947) in a long and close race for the Democratic nomination, easily winning the Washington state Democratic caucuses along the way. In November Obama won more popular votes than any presidential candidate in United States history and swept to a massive electoral college victory over Senator McCain. Obama carried Washington with 1,750,848 votes (57.7 percent) to McCain's 1,229,216 votes ( 40.5 percent).

Washington voters made history not only by helping elect the first African American president but also by turning out in record numbers to do so. Voter turnout surpassed three million for the first time as 3,071,587 of the state's 3,630,118 registered voters cast ballots. The 84.6 percent of registered voters who turned out was the highest since record-keeping began in 1935, the first year that the state permanently registered voters, edging out the 84.5 percent turnout in the wartime election of 1944.

Voting By Mail

Turnout in 2008 was boosted by the fact that 37 of Washington's 39 counties conducted the election entirely by mail, sending a ballot to every registered voter. Even in King and Pierce counties, the two that continued to operate in-person polling stations, many voters chose to vote by mail, so that the vast majority of the more than three million votes were mailed in.

Despite the record number of ballots, vote counting went smoothly, avoiding the controversy and complaints that dogged the count, the multiple recounts, and the court case that decided the 2004 governor's race by 133 votes in favor of Democrat Christine Gregoire over Republican Dino Rossi. Rossi ran again in 2008 and many observers and pollsters considered Gregoire vulnerable, but the rematch proved to be anti-climactic. Gregoire won 1,598,738 votes (53.2 percent) to Rossi's 1,404,124 votes (46.8 percent) and was declared the winner on election night.

Most statewide office-holders, including Attorney General Rob McKenna (b. 1962) and Secretary of State Sam Reed, both Republicans, joined Governor Gregoire in winning re-election. However, two incumbents lost their seats. Democratic challenger Peter J. Goldmark, a wheat and cattle rancher from Okanogan County, narrowly defeated Republican Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and Randy Dorn ousted Terry Bergeson in the non-partisan race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Incumbents in the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives fared better, as all nine were re-elected. In the only close contest, for the Eighth District seat representing eastern portions of King and Pierce counties, Republican Dave Reichert (b. 1950) won a rematch of his 2006 race against Democrat Darcy Burner with 191,568 votes (52.8 percent) to Burner's 171,358 votes (47.2 percent). Reichert's eight colleagues -- fellow Republicans Doc Hastings (b. 1941) in the Fourth District and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (b. 1969) in the Fifth, and Democrats Jay Inslee (b. 1951) in the First District, Rick Larsen (b. 1965) in the Second, Brian Baird (b. 1956) in the Third, Norm Dicks (b. 1940) in the Sixth, Jim McDermott (b. 1936) in the Seventh, and Adam Smith (b. 1965) in the Ninth -- all won by large margins just as they had two years earlier.

Ballot Measures

Two of the three statewide initiative measures on the ballot succeeded. The contentious battle over I-1000, promoted by supporters as "aid in dying" or "death with dignity" and denounced by opponents as the first step toward euthanasia, drew the most attention. Spending on the campaign topped $7 million, as initiative supporters raised $5.5 million and opponents countered with $1.6 million. The assisted-suicide measure passed easily with 1,715,219 votes (57.8 percent) in favor and 1,251,255 votes (42.2 percent) against. Initiative 1029, requiring training and testing for long-term care workers, passed by an even larger margin. However, voters rejected Initiative 985, presented by for-profit initiative promoter Tim Eyman as a means to counter traffic congestion by reducing the hours of car-pool lanes and other changes in transportation policy.

In King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, voters approved Proposition 1, a $22.8 billion expansion of Sound Transit's planned light rail and bus system funded by a sales-tax increase. A year earlier, a combined transit and highway levy had failed, but the transit-only Proposition 1 prevailed with more than 57 percent of the vote.

King County voters faced eight proposed charter amendments and approved seven of them, including two citizen-initiated amendments bringing significant changes to county elective offices. Amendment 8 made the top county offices -- County Executive, County Council, and Assessor -- non-partisan, so that candidates in future elections would run without party labels, and Amendment 1 made the County Elections Director an elected, rather than appointed, position (also non-partisan). The only proposed amendment to fail was Amendment 7, which would have raised the number of signatures required to place a citizen-initiated charter amendment on the ballot.

Top Two Debut

The November 2008 general election was the first held following a primary conducted under the "top two" system that was enacted by voters in 2004 but delayed by court challenges until the August 2008 primary. Unlike the unpopular "pick a party" primary that it replaced, the top-two system allowed voters to choose candidates of different parties for different offices, with the top two vote-getters for each position advancing to the general election even if both were members of the same party.

Although the top-two primary produced Democrat versus Republican races for all the statewide and federal offices, in eight legislative races on the November ballot two members of the same party competed for a seat. In two hotly contested races, Democrats Reuven Carlyle (b. 1965) and Scott White (1970-2011) defeated fellow Democrats John Burbank and Gerry Pollett to win open seats in Seattle districts.


"November 4, 2008 General Election," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State website accessed January 19, 2009 (http://vote.wa.gov/Elections/WEI/?ElectionID=26); "Reed Certifies Washington’s Record Election Turnout," Ibid. (www.secstate.wa.gov/office/osos_news.aspx?i=gflZD9f9G8fSV%2f8Uq%2bKLJA%3d%3d); "November 4, 2008 General Election," King County Elections website accessed January 20, 2009 (www.kingcounty.gov/elections/elections/200811.aspx); "Election 2008," Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website accessed January 19, 2009 (http://uselectionatlas.org/2008.php); Adam Nagourney, "First African-American Elected President," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 2008, p. A-1; Chris McGann, "Gregoire Triumphs as Close Race Fails to Materialize," Ibid., November 5, 2008, p. A-14; Jessica Blanchard, "State Schools Chief Trailing Challenger in Early Returns: Lands Commissioner Sutherland Also in Tight Contest," Ibid., November 5, 2008, p. A-14; Larry Lange, "Sound Transit's Package Is Passing; I-985 Falling Short," Ibid., November 5, 2008, p. A-14; Amy Rolph, "Carlyle, White Cruise in Legislative Contests," Ibid., November 5, 2008, p. A-15; John Iwasaki, "State Second in Nation to Allow Lethal Prescriptions," Ibid., November 5, 2008, p. A-15; Neil Modie, "High Voter Turnout Predicted," Ibid., October 20, 2004, p. B-1; Keith Ervin, "Initiative to Make Top Posts Nonpartisan Leading Handily," The Seattle Times, November 5, 2008, p. A-6.
Note: This essay was updated on October 21, 2011, and corrected on January 8, 2013.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You