It’s official: Voters across Martin Luther King Jr. County will get the opportunity this autumn to decide whether the county ought to align elections for all of its offices in even-numbered years instead of electing many key positions in odd years. By a vote of 7–2, the Council adopted Ordinance 2022–0180, which (if ratified) would change the county’s plan of government to stipulate that Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and Council positions be elected in even years.
Conceived by our team at the Northwest Progressive Institute, sponsored by Council Chair Claudia Balducci, and championed by a growing coalition that includes the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County, More Equitable Democracy, Washington Community Alliance, Somos Mujeres Latinas, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Share the Cities, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and the Sightline Institute, Ordinance 2022–0180 is designed to strengthen our democracy and make important local elections more inclusive.
The switch would be implemented by having the next terms for the affected offices be for three years instead of four. Thereafter, term lengths would revert to four years, putting each office’s regular elections in even years after that.
- 2023 > 2026 (instead of 2027)
- King County Elections Director
- King County Assessor
- King County Council, District #2
- King County Council, District #4
- King County Council, District #6
- King County Council, District #8
- 2025 > 2028 (instead of 2029)
- King County Executive
- King County Council, District #1
- King County Council, District #3
- King County Council, District #5
- King County Council, District #7
- King County Council, District #9
It has been over a decade since King County saw majority turnout in an odd-year election. But in even years, the county regularly sees turnout of over 80% (in presidential years) or 70% (in midterm years).
Just by switching the timing, we can as much as double turnout in elections for county level offices, and significantly diversify turnout, too. That will result — as I said in testimony delivered to the Council today in chambers! — in a county government that is better connected to the people it is supposed to serve.
Our team at NPI is profoundly grateful to Chair Balducci for introducing this amendment and enthusiastically propelling it through the legislative process. Thanks to her and Councilmembers Dembowski, Zahilay, Perry, Upthegrove, Kohl-Welles, and McDermott, voters in King County will get the opportunity to decide what kind of election system we want our county to have in the years ahead.
The roll call was as follows:
Voting Yea: Councilmembers Rod Dembowski (D1), Girmay Zahilay (D2), Sarah Perry (D3), Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D4), Dave Upthegrove (D5), Claudia Balducci, Joe McDermott (D8)
Voting Nay: Councilmembers Pete von Reichbauer (D7), Reagan Dunn (D9)
We can stick with the broken status quo, in which crucially important offices are voted on in “off years’ that are implied by name to be unimportant (note that we avoid the use of that term here at NPI except to criticize it!), or we can make a change. We can vote to start doing what nearly every county in Washington State already does: hold regular elections for county offices in even years, when high profile state and federal positions are also on the ballot.
As Chair Balducci has said, the data underpinning the case for the switch is extremely compelling. I noted back in November right here on the Cascadia Advocate that the 2020 presidential election, which featured seven charter amendments submitted by the Council to the people, attracted twice as many voters as the subsequent election for Executive the following year.
1.1 million votes were cast for and against each of those amendments, some of which were technical in nature. But in the Executive election a year later, only 572,911 votes were cast for the two finalists, Dow Constantine and Joe Nguyen.
And that wasn’t because voters didn’t care who represents them. They do! Most people are just not in the habit of voting every year. Put local offices on an even year ballot, and most people will take the time and effort to vote on those offices. That is exactly what this amendment does. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it addresses the very real concern about election fatigue that voters have.
Opponents of our charter amendment appear invested in maintaining the status quo (what we have is what we have, etc.) and have tried out various bad arguments against the amendment, hoping to find something that will stick.
Critics like Councilmember Reagan Dunn (a Republican, who voted no, along with Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer) have claimed, for example, that implementing this switch will result in local issues getting buried beneath state and federal issues. But this argument doesn’t make sense.
The “local issues” Dunn cites, like homelessness and housing, transit and transportation, or crime and public safety, are all state and federal issues as well as local issues. They’re not going to get buried in a midterm or presidential year.
Quite the contrary: because even-year elections are better covered by the media and because a lot more people pay more attention to electoral politics in even years, they’re more likely to learn about county government and what it does if candidates for county office are running in even years.
It’s a fact that a huge number of people are not currently engaging in odd years, so nobody can credibly argue that “local issues” are going to be hurt from a switch to even years. Anyone who wants the work of King County’s government to be front and center and top of mind should be supporting this amendment.
Relatedly, Dunn also suggested today in his final comments before the Council’s vote that more voters participating isn’t necessarily a good thing because those additional voters might not be casting informed votes. Ridiculous.
You might think that a candidate for higher office this year — Dunn wants to replace Kim Schrier in Congress as the representative from the 8th District — would refrain from insulting voters in public, but, well, you’d be wrong.
Then there’s the argument that response rates will suffer if these offices are put on an even year ballot. That doesn’t hold water, either. We can see from looking at response rates going back many years that downballot items in even years consistently get a better response than top of the ticket items in odd years.
We do appreciate Dunn’s concession today that our amendment is “thoughtful” and “well intentioned.” After what he previously said about our proposal, I wasn’t expecting that characterization, but it was really nice to hear those words.
At NPI, we believe in inclusion and in bringing people together. We believe our democracy is stronger and robust when everybody participates. Schemes to suppress the vote and rig elections are at odds with those values and goals, as are efforts to defeat reforms that would liberate us from the status quo.
Decades of data demonstrate that elections for offices like Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and Council are not benefiting from being relegated to ballots in odd years, or local election years, as we have also taken to calling them.
We have tried the existing approach for over fifty years.
It isn’t working. People just aren’t turning out. Five of the ten worst general election turnouts in state history have been in the last ten years.
And so on.
The principle of if it ain’t broke simply doesn’t apply here because the system is, in fact, broken. The trend is very clear and extremely unlikely to change.
It’s time that we ended a failed experiment.
It’s time we started working to implement a switch to even-year elections.
Our research has found that majorities in both the state as a whole and in King County are ready to make the switch. At least at the county level, voters are soon going to get that chance. We are committed to ensuring this charter amendment gets the public consideration it deserves. If you are interested in joining the coalition to pass what will soon be known as King County Charter Amendment 1, please get in touch with us. We would love to have your involvement.
Let the campaign begin!