Washington Voter Turnout, 1936-2015

Edi­tor’s Note: The fol­low­ing are NPI founder Andrew Vil­leneu­ve’s pre­pared remarks in sup­port of House Bill 2529, leg­is­la­tion prime spon­sored by State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mia Gregerson and cospon­sored by NPI’s own Gael Tar­leton that seeks to imple­ment one of NPI’s top elec­toral reform priorities. 

Madam Chair, Rank­ing Mem­ber Walsh, Mem­bers of the Committee:

Good after­noon. For the record, my name is Andrew Vil­leneuve. I’m the founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, based in Red­mond. I thank you for hear­ing this bill; this is an impor­tant and time­ly discussion.

As state rep­re­sen­ta­tives, you all know that to pass a bill in this cham­ber, you need fifty votes. An absolute major­i­ty. It’s express­ly required by Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 22 of the Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion, writ­ten by our state’s founders in 1889:

No bill shall become a law unless on its final pas­sage the vote be tak­en by yeas and nays, the names of the mem­bers vot­ing for and against the same be entered on the jour­nal of each house, and a major­i­ty of the mem­bers elect­ed to each house be record­ed there­on as vot­ing in its favor.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, I’d like you to imag­ine for a few moments that this absolute major­i­ty vote require­ment did­n’t exist.

And for the pur­pos­es of this exer­cise, let’s imag­ine that the Con­sti­tu­tion’s quo­rum require­ment (Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 8) does­n’t exist either.

What would that mean? It would mean that just a hand­ful of rep­re­sen­ta­tives could gath­er on the floor of the House and pass a bill all by themselves.

There are nine­ty-eight of you. But what if all it took to pass a bill was just twen­ty-five out of nine­ty-eight rep­re­sen­ta­tives present and vot­ing aye, instead of fifty?

Or nine­teen out of ninety-eight?

Would that be accept­able… a small sub­ma­jor­i­ty of the peo­ple’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives decid­ing what laws we should all live by?

That is akin to what hap­pened a lit­tle over four years ago, in 2015, when 19.13% of Wash­ing­ton State’s reg­is­tered vot­ers vot­ed yes on I‑1366. Few­er than one in five Wash­ing­ton vot­ers vot­ed for I‑1366, while over 80% either did not vote or vot­ed no. And yet,  I‑1366 passed any­way. Mean­while, the oth­er ini­tia­tive on the bal­lot that year — Paul Allen’s I‑1401 — received the sup­port of just 26.25% of the elec­torate, with near­ly three fourths of vot­ers not vot­ing or vot­ing no.

Such a thing would nev­er have hap­pened in Wash­ing­ton State’s ear­ly and mid­dle years, because until the 1970s, we did not hold state-lev­el elec­tions in odd-num­bered years. We only held them in even-num­bered years.

We now have decades of data that demon­strate that this was­n’t a good idea.

The ten low­est turnout gen­er­al elec­tions in state his­to­ry have all been in odd-num­bered years. Going back to 1973, there have been twelve odd-year gen­er­al elec­tions where turnout sur­passed fifty per­cent, and twelve where turnout was less than fifty per­cent. The future looks increas­ing­ly grim.

We haven’t had major­i­ty turnout in an odd-num­bered year since 2011. The odds are that odd-num­bered years will con­tin­ue to be plagued by low turnout.

On the oth­er hand, every sin­gle even num­bered year elec­tion going back decades has had major­i­ty turnout. Midterm years reg­u­lar­ly get over three-fifths turnout and pres­i­den­tial years some­times get over four-fifths turnout.

Despite our recent work to elim­i­nate bar­ri­ers to vot­ing dur­ing the last two years, turnout in last year’s elec­tion fell short of 50%. The major­i­ty who did not vote neglect­ed to return bal­lots, but they sent us a mes­sage nevertheless.

The Framers of our Con­sti­tu­tion envi­sioned a state with a gov­ern­ment that oper­at­ed on the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ple of major­i­ty rule with minor­i­ty rights.

That’s why they wrote Sec­tions 8 and 22 in Arti­cle II, the arti­cle of the Con­sti­tu­tion that estab­lish­es the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture. These care­ful­ly craft­ed pro­vi­sions pro­vide that a major­i­ty of each house con­sti­tutes a quo­rum and a major­i­ty of each house is required to pass bills.

How­ev­er, there are no con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­vi­sions requir­ing a min­i­mum vot­er turnout to pass ini­tia­tives. We could have vot­er turnout of just ten per­cent and have an ini­tia­tive pass with only 5.01% per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers cast­ing ballots.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, that makes no sense!

We could estab­lish a min­i­mum turnout require­ment for ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da by amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion. But this leg­is­la­tion offers us an eas­i­er and sim­pler means of ensur­ing that laws are being made by the many instead of by a few. This leg­is­la­tion ends an unsuc­cess­ful exper­i­ment begun in the 1970s and sim­pli­fies our sys­tem of elec­tions by phas­ing out elec­tions in odd num­bered years.

This will reg­u­lar­ly save us mil­lions of dol­lars that could be devot­ed to oth­er pub­lic ser­vices and sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce vot­er fatigue in addi­tion to ensur­ing that laws at the state lev­el are con­sid­ered or rejec­tion with much high­er lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion than what we saw in 2019, 2015, and oth­er odd-num­bered years.

Our neigh­bors south of the Colum­bia in Ore­gon get by just fine with­out state lev­el elec­tions in odd num­bered years. They allow more time for ini­tia­tive fil­ing and sig­na­ture gath­er­ing, as well, and we would do well to embrace that mod­el.… which is, as men­tioned, the mod­el we used to have here in Wash­ing­ton as well.

Please give this bill a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion so it con­tin­ues to advance.

Thank you.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “NPI to Evergreen State legislators: Phase out odd year elections to protect our democracy”

Comments are closed.