This month, the King County Council will be taking up an NPI proposal introduced by Chair Claudia Balducci to move regularly scheduled elections for Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and County Council to even-numbered years.
If approved by the Council, the ordinance would be placed on the November ballot for voters’ consideration. Ratification of the ordinance would ensure that beginning in the latter half of the 2020s, all King County positions are elected in years when majorities of voters consistently turn out, as opposed to the bifurcated system we have now, where only Prosecuting Attorney is elected in an even-numbered year and the other positions are elected in odd-numbered years.
Chair Balducci filed the charter amendment last Thursday and it got referred to committee today. In between now and then, The Seattle Times ran a well-reported front page story on the amendment by reporter David Gutman, which explains what the proposal would do and why it would be beneficial.
An opposing perspective is provided at the end of the article by Republican Reagan Dunn, a member of the Council who is running against Kim Schrier for Congress in the 8th Congressional District. Dunn is one of two Republicans left on the Council, along with veteran Pete von Reichbauer from Federal Way.
Here are the passages in which Dunn argues against our amendment:
Councilmember Reagan Dunn plans to oppose the change, arguing that local races would be deprived of attention. Dunn also worried about making an already long ballot longer, increasing the possibility that voters will leave races at the bottom of the ballot blank.
“You move it to even-year elections, federal issues will eclipse local issues because that’s where all the money is spent, that’s where the attention goes,” said Dunn, who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat this year. “And people forget to talk about things like homelessness, land use, crime and transportation.”
He also worries about local campaigns having to compete for TV or radio time with federal campaigns, when advertising rates are much higher.
“That’s an incumbent protection plan to me,” Dunn said. “It’s people with existing name identification that are going to win those elections.”
Today, Dunn appeared on right wing talk radio to criticize the amendment at greater length, fielding softball questions from host Jason Rantz, who sometimes appears on Rupert Murdoch’s FNC to engage in Seattle-bashing and who is quite proud that he once scored an interview with wannabe dictator Donald Trump.
Here’s a transcript of their initial exchange:
JASON RANTZ: Joining me on the line is Reagan Dunn, Reagan. Welcome back to the show.
REAGAN DUNN: Thanks for having me.
JASON RANTZ: You are opposing this effort by your colleague, Claudia Balducci. Take us through why?
REAGAN DUNN: Well, you know, obviously, it’s sponsored by the Northwest Progressive Institute, designed to win elections for Democrats by using the presidential year and then those major midterm elections where senators and congresspeople are on the ballot to try and increase their turnout and overrun the Republicans voting in the suburban districts. That’s one reason.
But the biggest reason is this: Nobody is talking about local issues in these big federal campaigns. You got homelessness, you’ve got crime, you’ve got transportation, traffic, uh, all the things that people care about — land use. And if you federalize an election, even years, you’re going to have all the federal offices above elected president, Senate, House, the seven statewide offices like the governor or attorney general, all the way down. [Note: There are actually nine elected statewide elected offices in the executive department, not seven, as Reagan said on Rantz’s show.]
And finally, maybe, the voters have the patience and time, they’ll come back down to these local county races. And by then, if they’re, if they’re still voting, they’re not going to know what issues are being discussed because they’ll be eclipsed at the federal level.
JASON RANTZ: Yeah, there’s just too much going on at once. I don’t think anyone can reasonably claim that even the media or just from an ad perspective of available ad time, that you can effectively cover the presidential, congressional races, mayoral races, county council, the county executive, the prosecutor, the school boards, the judges. Oh, and then on top of that, you’ve got all these other smaller things that usually do benefit from some extra time to actually spend focused on them. There’s… there’s just no way that that’s possible.
REAGAN DUNN: Yeah, there isn’t. And I ran for attorney general ten years ago and the drop off on the president all the way down… I was ninth on the ballot then. That has to go through the federal. And then you come down finally through all the statewide races to get to attorney general. And even then, there was a huge amount of voter drop-off. Literally, people start throwing out the ballots when they got down. But the thing about these off-year elections… you could focus in on go deep on homelessness, on crime, on land use policy, and municipal… related issues.
There’s quite a bit here to unpack, so let’s get started, shall we?
Why we’re doing this
First, with respect to our motivation, Reagan Dunn is wrong that our goal in bringing this amendment forward is to make it easier to elect Democrats.
Our actual objective is to listen to what voters have been telling us for many years and simplify our system of elections. Most voters do not want to be sent a ballot up to four times every year. Their preference is abundantly clear: they’d rather have fewer elections with longer ballots than more elections with shorter ballots.
By moving county elections to even-numbered years, we can as much as double the number of people who are regularly participating in choosing their elected representatives. Just as importantly, we’ll end up with a county electorate that is not only larger, but more diverse, which would be a boon for democracy.
Hilariously, after making the comments excerpted above, Dunn proceeded to use the extremely problematic phrase “off year election” not once but several times, unintentionally undercutting his own argument and proving just how entrenched in our political culture the attitude is that only even-years count.
If odd years are indeed “off years,” which implies people needn’t turn out, then why are we electing critically important local offices in those years!?
Democrats are already electorally dominant in King County
As Dunn is aware, Democrats are already electorally dominant in King County under the current system that we have and don’t need this amendment to obtain an electoral edge. In the year with the second worst general election turnout in state history (2015), the Democratic Party succeeded in flipping the 6th King County Council District with Claudia Balducci, and last year (2021), the party repeated the feat in the 3rd Council District with Sarah Perry. 2021 happens to have been the year with the third worst general election turnout in state history.
Seven members of the nine member Council now identify as Democrats along with the Assessor and the Executive. (The incumbent Elections Director, Julie Wise, who is supportive of our amendment, is not aligned with any party.)
In addition to their recent success in competitive council elections, Democrats have won every single Executive election in King County since the 1990s.
Candidates like David Irons and Susan Hutchison have repeatedly lost to Democrats like Ron Sims and Dow Constantine. Hutchison lost after Republicans succeeded in pushing their own charter amendment in 2008 that made county elections “nonpartisan,” which was explicitly intended to help Republicans.
Last year, Republicans didn’t even bother recruiting a credible candidate to challenge Constantine for Executive. That resulted in Constantine’s general election opponent being another Democrat: State Senator Joe Nguyen.
The lone countywide office in Republican hands for many years was that of Prosecuting Attorney, held by Norm Maleng’s successor Dan Satterberg.
However, after Trump was installed in the Oval Office, Satterberg declared himself a Democrat and dumped the Republican Party. He ran for reelection as Prosecuting Attorney in 2018 with Democratic Party support.
The days when Republicans were competitive across King County as a whole have disappeared into the rearview mirror. The last footholds that Republicans have in county government are in the two districts in the southern part of the county that are currently represented by Dunn and von Reichbauer.
Regardless of whether our charter amendment passes or not, it’s likely just a matter of time before those districts also flip. Under our proposal, which has a three-year transition period, there would not be even-year elections for Council in either Dunn or von Reichbauer’s districts until 2028. That is six years away. It’s likely that von Reichbauer will have retired by then, and as for Dunn, he is clearly eager to move on from the Council to another gig — like Congress.
So, again, Democrats don’t need this charter amendment to gain an advantage in King County elections. They already have one! And it’s possible that by the time this amendment is implemented, all nine council seats will be Democratic, having previously been flipped blue in a series of odd-numbered years. The reason to do this isn’t to help Democrats win, it’s to make county elections more inclusive.
Longer ballots aren’t going to hurt response rates
We can see from looking at data going back many years that more voters vote a complete or mostly complete ballot in even-numbered years than vote for anything at all in odd years. In 2021, less than half of King County voters cast a ballot, whereas in 2020, almost nine in ten voters participated.
In 2020, the position furthest down the ballot that spanned all of King County was Superior Court Position #30, a judicial office. This contest appeared on the reverse side of the ballot as there wasn’t room for it on the front.
There were two candidates vying for that post: Doug North and Carolyn Ladd. They and write-in candidates collectively received a total of 982,814 votes, less than twenty thousand votes shy of a million total.
Contrast that with the response rate for the top item on the 2021 ballot, which was one of Tim Eyman’s push polls. Only 580,471 voters marked an oval in response to that push poll. That is a difference of more than 400,000 voters!
Thanks to our friend Scott Shawcroft, we’ve got a chart that shows the response rates across election types. It’s a huge chart, but it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about here. Our thanks to Scott for his assistance in building this!
Pick pretty much any even year versus pretty much any odd year, and what you’ll find is that downballot response rates in even years exceed the top of the ticket response rates in odd years. So Reagan Dunn’s concern that that “voters will leave races at the bottom of the ballot blank” is unfounded. As I said above, voters prefer longer ballots in even-years to the system we have now.
If Dunn and others are really concerned about ballot length, then they should join us in lobbying to abolish Tim Eyman’s wasteful, deceptive, and fraudulent push polls, which are not binding yet illicitly masquerade as real ballot measures. We have legislation to get rid of the blasted things which will return in 2023.
We could also convert some of the thousands of obscure local offices that regularly aren’t contested to become appointed positions rather than elected ones. That would further shorten the ballot and simplify our elections.
Discourse on local issues isn’t going to be impaired
At NPI, we believe in intersectionality. We are the opposite of a single-issue organization. We believe that all issues are connected, and we believe that making progress across multiple issues at once is a worthy endeavor.
To hear Reagan Dunn tell it, federal and local issues are disconnected from each other. Well, that’s nonsense. Dunn contends that if King County elections get moved to even numbered years, then discourse on local issues will suffer.
We emphatically disagree.
Housing/homelessness, land use, public safety, transportation, and education are important federal and state as well as local issues. President Joe Biden discussed them all in his most recent State of the Union precisely because they are so universal. The notion that county candidates are going to forget to talk about important issues because they’re running alongside federal and state candidates is laughable. We’re electing a Prosecuting Attorney in King County this year, and the candidates are certainly not forgetting to talk about crime and public safety!
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill popularized the saying that all politics is local in the 1980s. People have argued more recently that all politics is national and all politics is Trump — and if you watch cable news enough, it can certainly feel that way. But place clearly still matters to people, even in this digital era. It’s why hyperlocal news sites like the West Seattle Blog, Nextdoor, and neighborhood Facebook discussion groups are frequently buzzing with conversation.
Rather than getting drowned out, local concerns will be lifted up if more local elections share a ballot with federal and state elections. With more media coverage and more voting, democracy at the local level will be more vibrant.
The sentiment expressed by Dunn and Rantz today on KTTH isn’t new — decades ago, the argument was made that local elections would benefit from standing on their own in years when federal and state offices weren’t on the ballot.
And that argument prevailed.
We have now tried their approach for several decades and the evidence is in: it isn’t working. Most people are telling us, by regularly not voting every other year, that they do not care for this bifurcated system of elections.
Talk show hosts like Rantz and career politicians like Dunn may not see anything wrong with continuing the status quo, but most voters are not insiders like them.
At NPI, we believe we need to listen and act on people’s concerns.
We believe that by switching King County’s elections to even-numbered years, we’ll see a richer and more robust discourse about local issues because more people allocate time to think and talk about politics during those cycles.
What about the cost to reach voters through paid ads?
The one concern Dunn has voiced thus far that we consider legitimate is that it will probably cost more for county-level campaigns to purchase television and radio advertising in even-numbered years. We share this concern, but we think the advantages of making the switch to even years offset this drawback.
If we make the jump, new doors will open for our county-level candidates. For example, they’ll be able to make campaign appearances at events like party caucuses and conventions that typically aren’t held in odd-numbered years, and they’ll benefit from increased political coverage by media outlets. And, to the extent permitted by law, they’ll be able to jointly fundraise or canvass with higher profile state and federal candidates that attract more donors and volunteers.
It has been over ten years since a majority of voters in Washington turned out in an odd-numbered year to vote. The trend is clear: most voters prefer to turn out in even-numbered years only. That’s when they pay attention and that’s when they’re interested in making decisions about who represents them.
Our charter amendment both acknowledges and acts on voters’ preferences.
If county elections move to even-numbered years, they will benefit from being held at times when far greater numbers of people are civically-minded.
Those of us who care deeply about politics — who live and breathe it — know that every election matters. We turn out and do our civic duty no matter what year it is or what else is going on in our lives. But most of our friends, colleagues, and neighbors aren’t following suit, even though they are fortunate enough to live in a state where the ballot comes to you, where you have three weeks to vote, and where every post office is effectively a drop box thanks to prepaid postage.
We have done great work on knocking down barriers to voting in Washington — and over right wing opposition, too. Now it’s time to address the twin problem of election fatigue by simplifying our elections. NPI’s research has previously found that a majority of voters in Washington support phasing out odd-year elections, while only a quarter are opposed. That’s a 2:1 margin of support to opposition.
If we make this change, we will be in very good company. The vast majority of Washington’s thirty-nine counties already elect county level offices in even-numbered years and have for decades. Only five of the state’s seven charter counties go in odd years: King, Snohomish, Whatcom, Clark, and Clallam. The other two, Pierce and San Juan, do their electing in even years.
After fifty years, it’s clear that the electoral system we have just isn’t working for most voters. So let’s give the people a chance to make a change. By putting this charter amendment on the November ballot, we’ll foster a needed conversation about election fatigue and give voters the power to do something about it.