Yes on even-year elections for King County
Yes on even-year elections for King County

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.

Yet Repub­li­cans like Rea­gan Dunn still aren’t on board:

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.

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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