This past week, the Washington State Legislature’s House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee heard public testimony on a bill that would phase out elections in odd-numbered years, one of NPI’s top electoral reform priorities.
HB 2529, introduced last week, is prime sponsored by the committee’s chair Mia Gregerson and co-sponsored by Representatives Entenman, Fey, Wylie, Mead, Peterson, Thai, Ramos, Hudgins, Tarleton, and Frame.
Although it had to compete with Donald Trump’s removal trial, the hearing nevertheless drew great interest from the mass media. The Spokesman-Review’s Jim Camden covered it, as did The Associated Press’ Rachel La Corte. Both reports excerpted highlights from my testimony in support. (The remarks I prepared prior to testifying were subsequently published here on the Cascadia Advocate.)
Five panels participated in the hearing, offering differing perspectives on the bill. Joining me in testifying in support were North Seattle Progressives’ John Plimpton, Shoreline City Councilmember Chris Roberts, Ashley Sutton from the Washington Voting Justice Coalition, and Colin Cole from More Equitable Democracy Action.
Testifying in opposition were Secretary of State Kim Wyman, con artist Tim Eyman, several representatives from the effort that qualified Referendum 88 (overturning I‑1000), and Eyman associates Michelle Darnell and Sid Neyeto.
Mike Hoover of the Washington Association of Counties and Sharon Swanson of the Association of Washington Cities also testified, but only to share concerns, rather than taking an explicit “pro” or “con” position.
The committee also heard an in-depth presentation from Zoltan Hajnal, a professor at the University of California San Diego’s Department of Political Science, during a work session that preceded the public hearing.
Prior to and during the hearing, opponents of HB 2529 made several bogus and dubious claims about the bill. I’m going to take the opportunity to debunk three of those here in the hopes that anyone following the debate over this legislation will have an easier time drawing the distinction between legitimate criticisms of the bill and attacks that simply have no merit or logic whatsoever.
Here we go!
CLAIM: House Bill 2529 is unconstitutional (in the words of Linda Yang) or “constitutionally suspect” (in the words of the Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier) because it eliminates state-level elections in odd-numbered years, thus sabotaging the people’s initiative and referendum powers.
REALITY: This is nonsense. From statehood until 1973, Washington did not hold state-level elections in odd-numbered years at all. Initiatives and referenda were considered exclusively during even-numbered years from 1914 through 1972.
Was that practice in violation of the Constitution? Of course not!
The Framers of the Seventh Amendment, which created the initiative and referendum process in 1912, envisioned a two-year cycle for initiatives. So adoption of House Bill 2529 would actually be a return to form for our state.
The Constitution does not require that elections be held in odd-numbered years; it only requires them in even-numbered years. The Legislature and Governor Dan Evans came up with the idea to add state-level elections in odd-numbered years in the 1970s, and they amended the Revised Code of Washington to provide for such elections. Today’s Legislature can similarly amend the Revised Code of Washington to eliminate elections in odd-numbered years.
Opponents are free to argue that HB 2529 is a bad idea (and they are). But it’s not “unconstitutional” or “constitutionally suspect”.
CLAIM: Just a couple of hours before HB 2529 was heard in House Hearing Room E, State Representative Andrew Barkis denounced the bill at a media availability held by the House and Senate Republican caucuses. Barkis (R‑2nd Legislative District) argued that in 2019, “we had one of the highest turnouts that we’ve seen in an off-year election in a long time… and that’s a testament to all the work that’s being put in to make sure people know what’s going on.”
REALITY: First of all, there’s no such thing as an “off year” election.… every election matters. That term needs to be consigned to the scrap heap.
If your position is that elections ought to continue being held in odd-numbered years, then lead by example and stop calling them “off year elections” because it suggests that some elections are irrelevant and do not matter.
(For future reference, Representative Barkis, we use the term local election year.)
Second, the turnout in the 2019 general election was the seventh-worst in state history. That’s right… the seventh worst. 2019 certainly compares favorably to 2017 and 2015, when we set records for the worst general election turnout in state history during two consecutive local election cycles. But it is definitely not the highest turnout in an odd-year that we have seen a long time. Turnout was higher in 2011, 2009, 2007, and 2005. It was about the same in 2013.
Here’s a chart of our ten worst general election turnouts from 1936-present.
Top Ten Worst General Election Turnouts in Washington State History
All of the worst turnouts are within the last fifty years… since we started holding elections in odd-numbered years… and they’re all in odd-numbered years.
CLAIM: At the same media availability, Barkis also argued that considering statewide initiatives and referenda in even-numbered years would make them hard to find. Quoting Barkis: “If you can imagine that process on an election year like it is this year, when you have the presidential and all.. and everything’s on the ballot, the amount of initiatives and referenda getting lost within the context of that ballot… I think that’s a suppressionary tactic in some ways.”
REALITY: This might take the cake for the silliest criticism of this legislation I’ve heard. There is no danger of initiatives and referenda “getting lost” on a presidential or midterm ballot. State law actually requires that state-level ballot measures be listed first, above all positions for elected office, even President of the United States. There is additionally a statute that prescribes in what order the different types of ballot measures must be listed (RCW 29A.72.290).
Here is an example ballot from 2016, the last presidential cycle, which shows the statewide measures prominently featured at the top of the ballot:Sample ballot for November 2016 general election
Furthermore, media coverage of statewide ballot measure battles tends to be robust and extensive no matter the year. Contrary to Barkis’ statement, the evidence shows that more voters are involved and engaged in ballot measure battles held in even-numbered years as opposed to odd-numbered ones.
Did I‑1639 (gun safety) or I‑1631 (pollution tax) get lost in the context of the 2018 midterm ballot? Of course not. Did I‑1433 (minimum wage) or I‑1491 (extreme risk protection orders) get lost in the context of the 2016 presidential ballot? No! In fact, all of those measures received far more votes, for and against, than any measure considered in any recent odd-numbered year election.
Here are the raw vote counts on Initiative 1639 from 2018 and Initiative 976 from 2019 for comparison. Both initiatives were/are controversial and have been assailed as unconstitutional by their opponents.
As we can see, far more voters weighed in on I‑1639 than on I‑976.
Initiative 1639, 2018 (Gun safety)
Election Turnout: 71.83% (3,133,462 of 4,362,459 voters)
Votes In Favor: 1,839,475
Votes Opposed: 1,259,681
Total Votes on Measure: 3,099,156
Initiative 976, 2019 (Gutting multimodal transportation infrastructure)
Election Turnout: 45.19% (2,035,401 of 4,503,871 voters)
Votes In Favor: 1,055,749
Votes Opposed: 936,751
Total Votes on Measure: 1,992,500
The bottom line:
1,106,656 more voters weighed in on I‑1639 than I‑976.
Again, here we have two controversial statewide initiative measures that each received ample media coverage. One received over three million votes for and against out of a possible 4.36 million votes; the other received less than two million out of 4.5 million possible votes.… because it appeared on a ballot in an odd-numbered year, when many Washingtonians decline to participate.
We could run comparisons on any number of other controversial initiatives and find the same thing. Initiatives that appear on the ballot in even-numbered years are considered and voted on by more voters than in odd-numbered years.
Representative Barkis is wrong. Statewide initiatives do not get lost in even-numbered years. They get more attention and more votes. That’s a good thing.
At NPI, we believe that laws should be made by the many, not a few.
When a small number of voters or when an unrepresentative elected body are making the laws that we all must live by, that is not democracy.
Accordingly, the threshold for passage of bills in the Legislature is an absolute majority, per Article II, Section 22 of the Washington State Constitution.
There is no similar minimum turnout threshold for initiatives, however.
At the hearing last Wednesday, I rhetorically asked the representatives who sit on the State Government Committee if they think it’s acceptable that laws can be made by a tiny fraction of the electorate. For example, if we had statewide turnout of just 10%, then 5.01% of registered voters could vote for an initiative and it would pass. Thankfully, we have never had statewide turnout that low.
This morning, Spokesman-Review columnist Sue Lani Madsen took note of my testimony, opining that consolidating elections in even years would undermine, not empower, voters. Towards the end of her column, she writes:
Andrew Villeneuve, of the Northwest Progressive Institute, testified in support of HB 2529.
He took issue with saying Initiative 976, which capped the cost of car tabs at $30 [NPI editorial comment: not true; as I‑976 would only lower vehicle fees to $43.25 if fully implemented], passed with 53% support, since a majority of voters statewide chose not to participate at all. By not participating, 45% [NPI editorial comment: actually, 54.81%] of state voters voted “I don’t care,” and I‑976 received active support from less than 25% of all registered voters to win.
On the other hand, even-year elections do not guarantee winning initiatives earn support from 50% of all registered voters.
In 2016, only two out of six met that more exacting standard and none of the four initiatives on the ballot in 2018 did so. Pretty sure Villeneuve isn’t going to argue we should ignore the results of the vote on Initiative 1433, which raised the minimum wage, or Initiative 1639, which imposed more regulations on firearms.
I’m not arguing that we should ignore the results of any statewide initiatives, Sue, even those passed by a submajority of voters.
I’m arguing that we should commit ourselves to figuring out how to achieve fuller participation in our elections. I’m arguing that we should all be concerned that there is no minimum turnout threshold for statewide ballot measures at all.
And by “statewide ballot measures”, I don’t just mean initiatives and referenda, but constitutional amendments as well. If the Legislature submits a change to our plan of government in an odd-numbered year, its fate could be determined by a relatively small number of voters in a bad turnout year like 2015 or 2017.
Should statewide measures be required to pass by an absolute majority like bills do? I don’t think so. As Sue argues, that would be a pretty exacting standard.
But if we’re going to keep holding elections in odd-numbered years, then there ought to be some minimum turnout threshold. Turnout in even numbered years, by the way, is always above fifty percent in Washington, going back decades.
NPI’s view is that we should at least have — or require — majority turnout.
In other words, a majority of the state’s registered voters should be weighing in on an initiative, referendum, or constitutional amendment for it to be eligible for passage. Measures would not need to receive the affirmative votes of an absolute majority like a bill in the Legislature would, but a majority of voters would have to render an opinion, as they consistently do on measures in even-numbered years.
This change would, of course, require a constitutional amendment, unlike Mia Gregorson’s HB 2529, which only changes state law.
Incidentally, there are some ballot measures that already do require a minimum turnout to pass: Bond propositions at the local level.
The Constitution requires these propositions to get an affirmative sixty percent vote at an election with a minimum of forty percent turnout (the sixty/forty rule).
Republicans also almost uniformly voted against relaxing the sixty/forty rule for school levies in 2007, but they lost and that constitutional amendment passed.
Clearly, Republicans are fine with the idea of minimum turnout requirements for local ballot measures. So, how about a constitutional amendment to establish a minimum turnout threshold for statewide ballot measures?
Such an amendment would not solve all the problems that HB 2529 is attempting to address, but it would at least tackle one of those problems, which is in our view is perhaps the biggest problem resulting from our switch to holding state-level elections every year instead of every two years.
I’d love to hear opponents of this bill, like Andrew Barkis and Kim Wyman, offer some ideas of their own, instead of merely dishing out criticism.
How would you boost turnout in odd-numbered years if you want to keep elections in those years? How would you ensure laws are not being made by small numbers of voters? We’ll gladly offer you space here on the Cascadia Advocate to discuss any answers to those questions that you’d care to share.