A proposed change to King County’s plan of government that would align elections for all county-level offices in even-numbered years is on track to go to voters for potential ratification this autumn after passing out of the Metropolitan King County’s Committee of the Whole today on a 7–2 vote.
Ordinance 2022–0180, conceived by our team at NPI and sponsored by King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, would move elections for Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and Council from odd years to even years, when turnout is higher and much more diverse. The shift would be accomplished by making the next set of terms for each of the aforementioned positions three years in length and then reverting back to four year terms thereafter.
If adopted by voters, the amendment would ensure that King County’s future leaders are chosen by the many instead of by a few.
In recent years, odd year voter turnout has rarely exceeded 45%, but in even years, turnout is consistently above 70%. The Council’s own nonpartisan staff noted in their assessment of Ordinance 2022–0180 that if past trends hold, we’ll see more robust turnout by making the switch to even-year elections.
“Whether Council wants to increase voter turnout for the election of these county offices is a policy decision for the Council to make,” the staff report declared.
Today, the Council decided that it does want to make the most of an opportunity to increase and diversify voter turnout. Seven councilmembers voted to send Ordinance 2022–0180 out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation, teeing up a final vote in the Council on June 28th, while two councilmembers voted no.
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)
The Metropolitan King County Council is officially “nonpartisan,” but the Council’s seven-member majority all identify as Democrats, while von Reichbauer and Dunn are Republicans. Dunn has made it clear for weeks that he’s strongly opposed to Ordinance 2022–0180. von Reichbauer has been far less outspoken, but was expected to join Dunn in voting no, and did so when it was his turn to vote.
The final vote to send the proposed change to voters in a couple of weeks is likely to be exactly the same. Once the Council completes its work, the fate of the amendment will be in voters’ hands. NPI and the Coalition For Even-Year Elections are prepared to work to secure the amendment’s passage this autumn.
Many organizations joined NPI in urging the Council to give Ordinance 2022–0180 a “do pass” recommendation, including the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County, the Sightline Institute, Somos Mujeres Latinas, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Washington Community Alliance, More Equitable Democracy, and Share the Cities. King County Democratic Chair Shasti Conrad and respected election timing expert Zoltan Hajnal of UC San Diego also spoke in favor.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci, the amendment’s prime sponsor, delivered an excellent closing speech for voting yea during the debate over whether to advance it out of committee, rebutting some of the bad arguments in opposition offered by Councilmember Reagan Dunn. Dunn argued that the Council should reject the amendment because it could increase candidates’ television and radio advertising costs and bury important local issues. Absurdly, Dunn also suggested that having more people involved in electing the county’s leaders would be a bad thing because those even year voters might not be casting informed votes!
Here’s what Balducci said in response (transcript edited lightly for clarity):
I will say that since since surfacing this proposal, the case for doing it has been extraordinarily compelling.
It’s based on data.
It’s based on research.
It’s based on what we know about what works to get more voters participating in selecting their elected representatives.
The opposing arguments have been almost entirely based on partisanship… based on the idea that one side or the other would be disadvantaged by more people voting.
And I have to say: if more people voting is bad for your candidacy, then, you know, the voters should have a say!
The voters should get to pick who they want to represent them.
And suppression is never the right approach to winning an election.
The other group of opposition arguments have come from campaign insiders… people who are concerned about what does this mean for me running a campaign or people who, in other ways, make their money or get their offices out of running campaigns.
Campaigns will adjust.
We will figure it out.
We will figure out how to get our message out to voters.
I sit here as somebody who was elected, having been outspent, when you count independent expenditures and direct candidate funding, by almost three-to-one.
And I was able to win because I did what campaigns do: I adjusted. I campaigned, as will others, with a lot of shoe leather. With a lot of volunteers. With phone calling. With the old-fashioned methods.
And: We still were able, with the money that we raised, to do a fair amount of [paid] media.
I am not concerned that campaigns will not get their messages out.
And I’ll say what I said before: I think that we overestimate what most voters do in odd-numbered years in order to learn about the issues. I think people read their newspapers, look at their voters’ guides. They might collect some of those mailers that pile up on the kitchen table. And when the time comes, they pull out whatever their favorite information sources are.
And they look at the ballot — and they ask friends and family.
And they fill in the little bubbles, as you said, and they do it based on the information that is available to them from their preferred sources of information. And people will still do that in even-numbered years.
I don’t think you will see a tremendous drop-off in the level of education or knowledge of the voters from odd years to even years.
So I haven’t heard any compelling arguments not to do this. I don’t know why we didn’t do it before. And I just want to end by saying we are by far not going to be like on the cutting edge as counties go. Most counties in Washington State elect their county council members, executives, and other county offices in even years.
Pierce County does it to the south, and they’re just fine.
And we’re just fine. And so I really encourage us to move this forward to the Council, and then at Council, to move it forward to the voters to make up their minds. Thank you, colleagues.
We are thrilled to have the support of a supermajority of the Council for this proposed change to King County’s system of elections.
We already elect our Prosecuting Attorney and Superior Court judges in even years, and we can see that those contests are drawing far more voters than the odd year elections we have been holding for Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and County Council. Aligning all our elections in midterm and presidential cycles will strengthen our democracy and deepen the relationship between the people of King County and their government. It’s actually the norm in Washington State for county offices to be chosen in even-numbered years — thirty-six out of thirty-nine counties already do it. It’s time King County joined them.
Two years ago, when the Council majority submitted a package of seven charter changes to voters, all of them were adopted by voters, despite some Republican opposition. That experience showed that King County voters are keenly interested in ideas to make their county government function more effectively. This autumn, they’re slated to get another opportunity to make a change for the better.