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.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

NPI’s research shows most King County voters favor a switch to even-year elections

This morn­ing, the King Coun­ty Coun­cil is accept­ing pub­lic com­ment on Ordi­nance 2022–0180, which, if approved, would give vot­ers in Wash­ing­ton State’s largest coun­ty the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote on a char­ter amend­ment this autumn that would move elec­tions for the offices of Exec­u­tive, Asses­sor, Elec­tions Direc­tor, and Coun­ty Coun­cil to even-num­bered years, when vot­ers already elect the Pros­e­cut­ing Attor­ney and decide con­test­ed races for Supe­ri­or Court judgeships.

Con­ceived by NPI and intro­duced by Coun­cil Chair Clau­dia Bal­duc­ci, the amend­ment would result in all coun­ty posi­tions being elect­ed in midterm or pres­i­den­tial cycles by 2028, when turnout is usu­al­ly the high­est and most diverse.

Elec­tions for posi­tions nor­mal­ly con­test­ed the year after a midterm cycle would move to midterm cycles, while posi­tions con­test­ed the year after a pres­i­den­tial cycle would move to pres­i­den­tial cycles. The realign­ment would be accom­plished by elect­ing all of the posi­tions now con­test­ed in odd-num­bered years to three year terms once, and there­after to four-year terms again.

Here’s a list of the twelve posi­tions that would be affect­ed, grouped by cycle:

  • 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

The metic­u­lous­ly pre­pared staff report for Ordi­nance notes:

If past trends hold, mov­ing these coun­ty offi­cer elec­tions from odd-num­bered to even-num­bered years would like­ly result in high­er vot­er turnout for these coun­ty offi­cer elec­tions. Whether Coun­cil wants to increase vot­er turnout for the elec­tion of these coun­ty offices is a pol­i­cy deci­sion for the Coun­cil to make. 

Empha­sis is mine.

That, in a nut­shell, is what this amend­ment is all about: ensur­ing that the peo­ple who are elect­ed to gov­ern Wash­ing­ton State’s largest polit­i­cal sub­di­vi­sion are cho­sen by the largest, broad­est, and most diverse elec­torate possible.

Decades of vot­er turnout show that par­tic­i­pa­tion is con­sis­tent­ly high in even-num­bered years, while in odd years, it’s typ­i­cal­ly well under fifty percent.

The gap between even and odd years has mor­phed into a chasm in recent years, with even years draw­ing as many as twice as many vot­ers as odd years.

In a post here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate last Novem­ber, I explained the dif­fer­ence that a mere twelve months makes, com­par­ing the 2020 and 2021 elec­tions:

If King Coun­ty had vot­ed on its next Exec­u­tive last year instead of this year, hun­dreds of thou­sands more vot­ers would have weighed in. For com­par­i­son, King Coun­ty turnout was 85.35% in 2020, and over 1.1 mil­lion votes were cast on each of a set of sev­en char­ter amend­ments sub­mit­ted by the coun­ty to voters.

That’s approx­i­mate­ly dou­ble the num­ber of vot­ers [572,911, to be exact] who chose between Dow Con­stan­tine and Joe Nguyen to be the next coun­ty exec­u­tive this month.

It’s actu­al­ly the norm in Wash­ing­ton State for coun­ty offices to be elect­ed in even-num­bered years along­side state and fed­er­al posi­tions. Thir­ty-six out of thir­ty-nine coun­ties fol­low this long-estab­lished prac­tice and enjoy more robust par­tic­i­pa­tion as a result. For exam­ple, King Coun­ty’s south­ern neigh­bor Pierce Coun­ty, the sec­ond largest coun­ty in the state) held its most recent elec­tion for Exec­u­tive in 2020 rather than in 2021, when turnout was more than eighty percent.

The last con­test­ed King Coun­ty Pros­e­cut­ing Attor­ney drew hun­dreds of thou­sands more vot­ers than the last con­test­ed elec­tion for Exec­u­tive, the coun­ty’s high­est pro­file and most impor­tant office, sim­ply because it was in an even year.

Here’s a comparison:

King Coun­ty ExecutiveKing Coun­ty Pros­e­cut­ing Attorney
Con­test­ed in odd years (cur­rent­ly!)Con­test­ed in even years
Last elec­tion: 2021Last elec­tion: 2018
Coun­ty turnout that year: 43.41%Coun­ty turnout that year: 74.80%
Votes cast for the office: 572,911Votes cast for the office: 789,213

216,302 more votes were cast for Pros­e­cut­ing Attor­ney in 2018 than for Exec­u­tive three years lat­er. (And that was despite an increase in the num­ber of reg­is­tered vot­ers over the course of three years.) To put that in per­spec­tive, that’s a dif­fer­ence of more than two Belle­vue-sized elec­torates. More than two!

We don’t know yet what turnout will be like this year. But if it’s any­thing close to what it was in 2018, then this year’s race for Pros­e­cut­ing Attor­ney will again draw more votes than last year’s race for Exec­u­tive. All thanks to timing.

It has been more than a decade since a major­i­ty of vot­ers turned out to vote in an odd-num­bered year, both in King Coun­ty and Wash­ing­ton State as a whole. Although Wash­ing­to­ni­ans enjoy the right to vote at home, with a win­dow of about three weeks to fill out and return a pack­et to their coun­ty elec­tions office, most vot­ers are choos­ing to cast bal­lots only in even-num­bered years.

They’re send­ing a mes­sage: few­er elec­tions, please.

We need to listen.

Ear­li­er this year, we unveiled research show­ing that a major­i­ty of Wash­ing­ton vot­ers favor phas­ing out odd year elec­tions entire­ly. Our find­ing, released at a pub­lic hear­ing of the House State Gov­ern­ment & Trib­al Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, demon­strat­ed vot­er inter­est and sup­port for State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mia Gregerson­’s leg­is­la­tion to phase out many odd year elec­tions. The com­mit­tee respond­ed by giv­ing the leg­is­la­tion a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion for the first time. Not long after, the House Rules Com­mit­tee sent it to the floor, which was also a first.

While the bill did not get a floor vote, its place­ment on the floor was a sig­nif­i­cant and encour­ag­ing mile­stone. Next year’s ver­sion of the bill will hope­ful­ly be even bet­ter and advance the effort to sim­pli­fy and strength­en our elec­tions at the state lev­el. In the mean­time, the King Coun­ty Coun­cil has an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to allow vot­ers to decide if they’d like to align all coun­ty elec­tions in even-num­bered years. Our research indi­cates that vot­ers in King Coun­ty are even more enthu­si­as­tic about even year elec­tions than vot­ers in the state as a whole.

Here’s the ques­tion we asked last Novem­ber and the respons­es we received from the statewide sam­ple of nine hun­dred like­ly 2022 vot­ers:

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree with the fol­low­ing state­ment: Wash­ing­ton State should dis­con­tin­ue hold­ing elec­tions in odd-num­bered years and instead require cities, coun­ties, ports, school dis­tricts, and oth­er local gov­ern­ments to hold their elec­tions in even num­bered years, when state and fed­er­al offices are on the ballot?

ANSWERS:

  • Agree: 52%
    • Strong­ly agree: 31%
    • Some­what agree: 21%
  • Dis­agree: 24% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 13%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 11%
  • Not sure: 24%

And here are the respons­es from our King Coun­ty subsample:

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree with the fol­low­ing state­ment: Wash­ing­ton State should dis­con­tin­ue hold­ing elec­tions in odd-num­bered years and instead require cities, coun­ties, ports, school dis­tricts, and oth­er local gov­ern­ments to hold their elec­tions in even num­bered years, when state and fed­er­al offices are on the ballot?

ANSWERS [KING COUNTY SUBSAMPLE]:

  • Agree: 54%
    • Strong­ly agree: 36%
    • Some­what agree: 18%
  • Dis­agree: 18% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 8%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 10%
  • Not sure: 28%

Our sur­vey of 909 like­ly 2022 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Wednes­day, Novem­ber 10th through Thurs­day, Novem­ber 11th, 2021.

It uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines (50%) and text mes­sage answers from cell phone only respon­dents (50%).

The poll was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

More infor­ma­tion about the survey’s method­ol­o­gy is avail­able here.

As we can see, vot­ers in King Coun­ty were more like­ly to voice strong agree­ment for requir­ing local gov­ern­ments to hold elec­tions in even years than vot­ers in the state as a whole, while few­er voiced dis­agree­ment than in the over­all sample.

In fact, the per­cent­age who strong­ly agree in King Coun­ty is dou­ble that of the per­cent­age who some­what or strong­ly dis­agree (36% vs 18%).

We also found that sup­port stayed steady both statewide and in King Coun­ty after we fol­lowed up by pre­sent­ing select­ed argu­ments for and against phas­ing out odd year elec­tions, includ­ing the argu­ment that phas­ing out odd year elec­tions would increase bal­lot length. Here are the King Coun­ty responses:

QUESTION: Pro­po­nents of elim­i­nat­ing elec­tions in odd-num­bered years say that we could save tens of mil­lions of tax dol­lars, give vot­ers a break from inces­sant polit­i­cal TV ads, mail­ers, and robo­calls, and pre­vent laws from being made by a small frac­tion of vot­ers by hold­ing elec­tions only in even-num­bered years, when turnout is high. Oppo­nents say that elim­i­nat­ing elec­tions in odd years would push statewide ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da to a two-year cycle, result in length­i­er bal­lots in even-num­bered years, and allow peo­ple who are appoint­ed to fill a vacan­cy to stay in office longer. Hav­ing heard these argu­ments, let me ask you again: Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree that Wash­ing­ton State should dis­con­tin­ue hold­ing elec­tions in odd-num­bered years?

ANSWERS [KING COUNTY SUBSAMPLE]:

  • Agree: 53%
    • Strong­ly agree: 35%
    • Some­what agree: 18%
  • Dis­agree: 28% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 13%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 15%
  • Not sure: 20%

While oppo­si­tion increased by ten points after the argu­ments for and against were pre­sent­ed (with few­er vot­ers unsure), the big take­away is that sup­port stayed vir­tu­al­ly unchanged. This sug­gests that most vot­ers aren’t wor­ried about bal­lots get­ting longer, which is a fre­quent argu­ment against even-year elec­tions that we hear. Vot­ers would rather have longer bal­lots and few­er elec­tions than the bifur­cat­ed sys­tem we have, with some local offices being elect­ed in even-num­bered years but most rel­e­gat­ed to odd-num­bered years.

Ordi­nance 2022–0180, if adopt­ed, will have lit­tle effect on bal­lot length because it would only shift twelve offices from odd years to even years, with nine of those twelve offices shar­ing bal­lot space because they are dis­trict-based. Depend­ing on what dis­trict they’re in, King Coun­ty vot­ers would see at most three more items in a midterm cycle than they do today, and at most two more in a pres­i­den­tial cycle.

Even those who don’t agree with us that odd year elec­tions ought to be phased out can hope­ful­ly see the log­ic of this char­ter amend­ment, which is only con­cerned with twelve posi­tions at one lev­el of government.

Ensur­ing King Coun­ty’s coun­ty-lev­el elec­tions are all in even years will align the state’s largest coun­ty with its small­er peers, and ensure that the elec­torate that picks the Exec­u­tive, Coun­cil, Asses­sor, and Elec­tions Direc­tor is the same elec­torate that already elects the Pros­e­cut­ing Attor­ney and Supe­ri­or Court judges.

Impor­tant­ly, the Exec­u­tive, who has a tremen­dous amount of author­i­ty and appoint­ing pow­er, would be cho­sen in pres­i­den­tial years along with the Governor.

As the staff report explains, this char­ter amend­ment will have lit­tle effect on bal­lot length or elec­tion costs. It won’t change the tim­ing of city elec­tions, port elec­tions, school board elec­tions, or any oth­er elec­tions. It is thus mod­est from a pro­ce­dur­al per­spec­tive, but it will have a big pay­off: By the end of this decade, much larg­er and more diverse elec­torates will be choos­ing King Coun­ty’s nine mem­ber leg­isla­tive body along with all of its exec­u­tive officers.

Just think: If this amend­ment is adopt­ed, hun­dreds of thou­sands more vot­ers will end up reg­u­lar­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the selec­tion of King Coun­ty’s future lead­ers, which could raise the pro­file of coun­ty gov­ern­ment and improve aware­ness and inter­est in the impor­tant work that goes on in the Courthouse.

Let’s make that hap­pen. Let’s pass Ordi­nance 2022–0180.

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