Claudia Balducci chairs a King County Council meeting
King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci listens to public comment at the June 28th, 2022 meeting of the Council (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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.

2017 was the worst turnout in his­to­ry so far.

2015 was the sec­ond worst.

2021 was the third worst.

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!

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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