NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022

Reagan Dunn and Jason Rantz are wrong: Moving county elections to even years won’t hurt public discourse at the local level

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 fact that spe­cial elec­tions for local offices in even years attract more vot­ers than reg­u­lar­ly held elec­tions for those posts in odd years illus­trates this point.

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

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