With ballots in the 2022 midterms due to be mailed out to voters soon, The Seattle Times today published a new article looking at King County Charter Amendment 1, a proposal developed here at the Northwest Progressive Institute and backed by a broad coaliton that would move elections for twelve county positions out of low turnout odd numbered years to higher turnout even numbered years.
Written by reporter David Gutman, the article does an excellent job presenting our coalition’s arguments for the amendment as well as Republican Councilmember Reagan Dunn’s arguments against it. The first half of the article even includes a compelling comparison that we’ve been using throughout the campaign, which made its debut here on the Cascadia Advocate nearly a year ago in this post and helped inspire the development of the charter amendment:
Over the past 20 years, King County voter turnout in even years has averaged 77%. Voter turnout in odd-numbered years has averaged 47%.
To cite a recent example: King County voters changed the county charter (essentially the county constitution) in 2020, when they approved seven charter amendments related to the Sheriff’s Office and other issues. That year, of course, also happened to feature elections for president and governor.
With those high-profile races acting as draws, more than 1.1 million people voted for the low-profile charter amendments.
A year later, in 2021, County Executive Dow Constantine ran for a fourth term against state Sen. Joe Nguyen.
It was an, at times, testy campaign for a powerful office. But without the big national and state-level races to draw in voters, only about 570,000 voters cast ballots in the race.
Nearly twice as many people voted on the rather dull charter amendments in an even-numbered year, as voted for the hugely influential county executive in an odd-numbered year.
In addition to helpful comparisons like the one Gutman usefully included in his article, we have years of returns data from King County Elections showing that response rates for downballot items in even numbered years are consistently better than response rates for top of the ticket items in odd numbered years.
We also know that even-year electorates are more inclusive.
So we can say with confidence that if were electing our Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and Councilmembers in even-numbered years, the turnout would not only be greater, it would be significantly more diverse… with more younger voters, voters of color, working class voters, and renters turning out.
County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, one of the two no votes in July, still thinks it’s a bad idea.
Yes, Dunn concedes, more people will vote for these county positions if the elections are held in even years. But, he asks, will people pay attention to the county races, will the local issues at stake be able to break through the noise of the higher-profile campaigns?
Dunn has not been actively campaigning against Charter Amendment 1 (as the article observes, there’s no organized opposition), but he has continued to argue it should be rejected when asked to weigh in by the press. The comments published today are similar to those he’s made before:
“The money that is spent on the governor, senator, congressional races and president utterly drowns out anything that could be spent on a local county race,” Dunn said. “You’re completely drowning out the local issues like homelessness, like crime, like local transportation.”
It could, Dunn argues, work to protect incumbents, as challengers find it difficult to afford higher advertising rates when they’re being crowded out by the higher profile races. At the same time, Dunn, a Republican who has run for county, congressional and statewide office, concedes that moving county elections to higher turnout even-numbered years would, in general, be bad for Republicans.
I made this point last spring, but it bears repeating: The “local issues” Reagan Dunn keeps talking about are also state and federal issues. Homelessness, crime, and transportation don’t cease to become concerns at other levels of government.
In the 8th Congressional District race — which he was eliminated from a few weeks ago — both top two candidates are talking about crime and public safety. Kim Schrier even has a public safety themed ad that has a local angle.
Dunn keeps arguing that if we move county elections to even years, “local issues” (what he really means is local perspectives on key issues) will get buried or drowned out. But that is already happening under the current system.
We can see it in the turnout data and in the lack of civic engagement.
In Washington State, every registered voter gets a ballot sent to them with three weeks to return it. This is, according to independent research, the easiest state in the country to vote in along with Oregon. Yet, in odd years, most Washingtonians simply don’t participate. The last time a majority of people in Washington voted in an odd-year election was in 2011. Five of the worst all-time general election turnouts in state history have been in the past ten years: in 2017, 2015, 2021, 2019, and 2013 (listed in this paragraph in the order of lowest turnouts).
Dunn asks rhetorically if people will pay attention to county races if they’re in even years. The answer is yes, they will… because county governance and county-level topics will be part of the mix in years when people are more attuned to politics and when the media’s political coverage is more robust.
In other words, the inverse of Dunn’s argument is true.
The coattails effect in politics is a known and powerful force… a force that can benefit government at the county level and increase its visibility with voters.
The arguments I’m making here might seem paradoxical to those who are averse to change, or unwilling to be guided by data. But life and politics are full of paradoxes. And notice that Reagan Dunn isn’t putting anything on the table besides unsupported criticisms of our proposal. He admits we have a turnout problem in odd years, but he isn’t offering any ideas to do anything about it.
A healthy democracy requires participation and right now, we’re not seeing the robust participation we want to see in county elections held in odd years.
We need to tackle this problem, not ignore it and allow it to continue to fester.
Our team often hears people who work in politics joke that the county is the invisible middle layer of government, sandwiched in between the city level and the state level. And there’s definitely truth to that, especially given King County’s size. It is a huge jurisdiction in multiple respects. For example, its landmass is greater than that of Rhode Island or Delaware’s, and its population exceeds not only that of states like Wyoming or North Dakota, but also New Hampshire or Hawai’i, too.
Counties are the basic units of government below the state level. King County elected officials work full time and year round for over 2.3 million people, making crucially important decisions about land use, transportation, infrastructure, public safety, and much more. These positions should be on an even year ballot alongside state and federal positions like U.S. House, Governor, or President.
Right now, voters who turn out only in even years in King County don’t see them. They do see Prosecuting Attorney and Superior Court judges, but they don’t see Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, or Council.
This doesn’t make any sense.
The norm for county elections in Washington is even years. Thirty-six out of thirty-nine counties regularly elect all their county positions in higher turnout cycles.
King, Whatcom, and Snohomish are the only counties that don’t follow this norm.
These counties have charters that rely on the thinking espoused by Reagan Dunn… that it’s better for voters and democracy if local positions stand on their own in the in-between years. This idea gained a lot of acceptance back in the 1970s, the decade after King County became a home rule charter county. That was when the bifurcated system of elections we have was being established.
We now have over half a century of experience electing people this way and we can conclusively say that it’s bad for democracy. It is a failed experiment that we can bring to an end with King County Charter Amendment 1 this autumn.
Join us in voting yes on KCCA1 by Tuesday, November 8th at 8 PM. If you’d like more information about the case for voting yes, check out our campaign website.