This year, one of NPI’s top advocacy priorities was to give the people of King County an opportunity to strengthen our democracy by moving elections for twelve key county positions from odd years to even years, when turnout is much higher and more diverse. Working with Council Chair Claudia Balducci and Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, we developed a charter amendment to implement a switch to even year elections that the Council voted 7–2 to refer to voters.
Our polling has consistently found strong support for even-year elections, but it was still a great thrill to open the King County elections results file on November 8th and see that our charter amendment had the support of more than 69% of voters… support that has not diminished as counting has gone on.
With 892,158 ballots now counted, King County Elections reports that 560,783 people have voted for the switch to even-year elections, while 246,490 voted no. That’s a margin of more than 2:1. Very few outstanding ballots now remain to be counted, so the margin will see almost no change between now and certification.
In politics, a twenty-point spread is considered a landslide. The spread for Charter Amendment 1 is nearly twice that: forty points. Given our research and the lack of organized opposition, we were very optimistic we’d do well. Yet our electoral performance was even better than what the polling suggested it could be.
We know that election fatigue is a real problem and that there is a growing turnout gap between odd and even years. Our amendment represented a historic initial effort to give voters in a populous swath of the Pacific Northwest the power to decide when future elections for important local government positions should be held. Voters had a choice: stick with the status quo, or make a change.
They chose to make a change.
As a consequence, by the end of this decade, King County will elect all of its county positions in even years for the first time since it became a home rule charter county in 1969. The county already elects its Prosecuting Attorney and Superior Court judges in even years. Going forward, Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and Council will also be elected in even years. In 2026 and 2028, for the first time in generations, the county’s executive and legislative leadership will be chosen in cycles when we can be confident of turnout exceeding fifty percent.
For example, instead of only hundreds of thousands of voters weighing in on who our Executive should be, we’ll likely have over a million voters weighing in.
Even-year elections are actually the norm for counties in Washington, but charter counties can deviate from the norm if they wish to, and King County currently does, along with Snohomish and Whatcom counties. But not for much longer!
The passage of King County Charter Amendment 1 is part of a nationwide success story in these midterms. There’s a growing movement in this country favoring even-year elections that had a clean sweep in 2022, with a total of thirteen even-year election measures identified by Ballotpedia all winning approval. Plus, voters in Portland, Oregon said yes to a proposal to overhaul city government and aligning city elections in even years.
Take a look:
These results couldn’t be clearer. The people have spoken, and they want even-year elections for local government positions.
From San Francisco to Boulder to St. Petersburg to King County, the result was the same: Approved, Approved, Approved, Approved!
Our team knows there are county auditors, elected officials, and activists out there who are skeptical about switching to even-year elections.
We’ve heard their concerns at public hearings, in candidate forums, and in policy meetings, and we have ideas for addressing many of them.
We urge those who have expressed opposition to even-year elections to recognize that this is something voters want. To all those who think like Reagan Dunn does, we ask: Can you figure out how to get to “yes” instead of just saying “no”?
A majority of the electorate has been consistently sending a message by not participating every year: We don’t like this system. Please simplify our elections!
Participation is important to the health of a democracy. We don’t have compulsory voting here in the United States, and unless we want to follow Australia’s example and implement that policy, we need to figure out how to make voting as simple and meaningful as possible. That means addressing election fatigue.
Even-year elections for local government positions are a necessary and vital reform. Academic research has confirmed that nothing raises and diversifies turnout like changing the timing to align with state and federal elections.
In Washington, we’ve implemented same-day voter registration, prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes, added drop boxes, and increased voter outreach, yet turnout in odd years has continued to drop. 2017 saw the worst-ever turnout in state history, 2015 was the second worst, and 2021 was the third worst. 2019 and 2013 also rank among the top ten worst turnouts in state history.
Our team doesn’t know the future, but if the trend holds, 2023 will be dismal too.
In contrast, even year turnout has been much healthier.
2018 saw near record turnout for a midterm and 2020 saw near record turnout for a presidential cycle. 2022 won’t set records, but statewide turnout is now 62.98%, which is better than 2006 or 2014, and better than every single odd-numbered year going back to the 1970s except for one — the 1991 general.
Every time we compare turnout for a downballot local office in an even year to turnout for a similar post in an odd year, the even year turnout is markedly better.
Here’s a fresh comparison for you: In King County, 788,318 ballots have been tabulated so far for Prosecuting Attorney (Leesa Manion, Jim Ferrell, or a write-in candidate). That’s 215,407 more votes than were cast in a competitive race for King County Executive just one a year ago. That’s the difference timing makes!
We know from our own research that voters across Washington are enthused and intrigued about even year elections, not just in King County. We stand ready to work with the Legislature in 2023 and 2024 to ensure that more local government positions become eligible for a switch to elections in even-numbered years.