Returning a ballot
Returning a ballot to a drop box

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

2017 Gen­er­al37.10%
2015 Gen­er­al38.45%
1985 Gen­er­al40.18%
2003 Gen­er­al40.49%
1987 Gen­er­al42.32%
2001 Gen­er­al44.51%
2019 Gen­er­al45.19%
2013 Gen­er­al45.27%
1981 Gen­er­al46.73%
1989 Gen­er­al48.11%

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.

1.1 mil­lion!

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).

Democ­rats pro­posed relax­ing these require­ments last ses­sion; Repub­li­cans object­ed and nixed the pro­pos­al, which required a two-thirds vote.

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.

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.

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