SB 5723: Allowing Even Year Elections for Cities and Towns
Senate Bill 5723 would allow Washington cities and towns to switch their elections to even-numbered years (NPI artwork)

A pro­posed state law devel­oped by NPI and Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez (D‑46th Dis­trict: Seat­tle) that would give cities and towns the free­dom to switch their elec­tions to even-num­bered years passed out of the Sen­ate State Gov­ern­ment & Elec­tions Com­mit­tee today with a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion, on the final day for pol­i­cy com­mit­tees to send bills up to either Rules or Ways & Means.

Sen­ate Bill 5723 was intro­duced ear­li­er this month with a large num­ber of cospon­sors and had its hear­ing one week ago. In addi­tion to NPI, it is sup­port­ed by the Sight­line Insti­tute, Wash­ing­ton Bus, Asian Coun­sel­ing and Refer­ral Ser­vice, the Wash­ing­ton Com­mu­ni­ty Alliance, and many oth­er organizations.

The Asso­ci­a­tion of Wash­ing­ton Cities is also on record as sup­port­ing the bill.

The only oppo­si­tion tes­ti­mo­ny came from NPI’s long­time polit­i­cal foe Tim Eyman.

The bill is straight­for­ward. It cre­ates a process by which cities and towns may change the tim­ing of their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions from odd to even years to take advan­tage of much high­er and more diverse turnout in even years.

Since the 1960s, cities and towns have been required to go in odd years and have no abil­i­ty to change their tim­ing as char­ter coun­ties (like King Coun­ty) can.

But if Sen­ate Bill 5723 pass­es, cities and towns could adopt an ordi­nance, either coun­cil­man­i­cal­ly or by vote of the peo­ple, resolv­ing to change the tim­ing of their elec­tions to even years. Ordi­nances adopt­ed coun­cil­man­i­cal­ly would have to be pre­ced­ed by two pub­lic hear­ings spaced thir­ty days apart, to ensure ample oppor­tu­ni­ty for the peo­ple of the city or town to weigh in on the pro­posed switch.

“To tran­si­tion to even-year elec­tions, the city or town must elect all its posi­tions to one term is that is one year short­er than it would ordi­nar­i­ly be,” the bill’s non­par­ti­san staff report explains.

“After the con­clu­sion of that term—in an even-num­bered year—future terms for that posi­tion will be at their cus­tom­ary length. The ordi­nance or ref­er­en­dum must spec­i­fy at which odd-year elec­tion posi­tions will be elect­ed to short­ened terms.”

“The ordi­nance or ref­er­en­dum switch­ing to even-year elec­tions must be adopt­ed by Jan­u­ary 15th for elec­tions for short­ened terms to take place in that cal­en­dar year.”

The roll call vote on the bill was as follows:

Sup­port­ing a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion: Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tors Sam Hunt (Chair), Javier Valdez (Vice Chair), Pat­ty Kud­er­er, Bob Hasegawa

Offer­ing a “do not pass” rec­om­men­da­tion: Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors Jeff Wil­son (Rank­ing Mem­ber), Phil For­tu­na­to, Per­ry Dozier

“The data is very clear and we heard in tes­ti­mo­ny that when you have elec­tions in even-num­bered years, more peo­ple vote,” Sen­a­tor Valdez said in a speech urg­ing a do pass rec­om­men­da­tion. “There is no manda­to­ry move to hav­ing local elec­tions move to even years. It is going to be up to those res­i­dents or those local city coun­cilmem­bers to make that move if they so want to.”

Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors Jeff Wil­son and Phil For­tu­na­to both spoke in opposition.

Wil­son raised the con­cern that even-year bal­lots will get longer under the bill. How­ev­er, this bill was specif­i­cal­ly writ­ten to respond to this objection.

No Wash­ing­ton­ian lives in more than one city or town, and most cities stag­ger their elec­tions, with around half of their posi­tions up in one cycle and half in the oth­er. So even year bal­lots actu­al­ly wouldn’t get much longer than they are today. And if NPI’s bill to nix Tim Eyman’s push polls pass­es the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (SSB 5082), we will also soon be free­ing up space on even year bal­lots, mak­ing room for legit­i­mate items such as city and town elections.

Sen­a­tor Phil For­tu­na­to raised the con­cern that if city and town elec­tions migrate their elec­tions to even years, costs will go up for the local juris­dic­tions that stay in odd-num­bered years, like fire dis­tricts, and few­er peo­ple will vote in odd years.

But this con­cern is also unfounded.

Turnout in odd years is already ane­mic because so many vot­ers have giv­en up on vot­ing in those annums. Half of the ten worst gen­er­al elec­tion turnouts in Wash­ing­ton State his­to­ry have been in the last five odd-num­bered years.

That’s right: half.

The worst-ever vot­er turnout was in 2017, the sec­ond-worst was in 2015, the third-worst was in 2021, the eighth-worst was in 2019, and the ninth-worst was in 2013.

We can see from look­ing the last twen­ty spe­cial elec­tion turnouts in Feb­ru­ary and April that an aver­age of 35.12% of Wash­ing­ton vot­ers are reli­able, duti­ful vot­ers who will send back a bal­lot regard­less of what’s on it or what time of year it is.

35.12% is basi­cal­ly our cur­rent rock bot­tom aver­age for vot­er participation.

The turnout per­cent­ages we’ve seen in recent odd year elec­tions, espe­cial­ly 2021, 2017, and 2015, have not been much high­er than 35.12%.

Since we’re already approach­ing rock bot­tom in terms of vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in Novem­ber of odd-num­bered years, there is unlike­ly to be much impact on odd year turnout rates from cities and towns switch­ing their elec­tions to even years.

As Sen­a­tor Valdez said, our leg­is­la­tion is data-driven.

It was writ­ten care­ful­ly and thought­ful­ly to advance vot­ing jus­tice at the munic­i­pal lev­el with­out cre­at­ing big logis­ti­cal issues for coun­ty elec­tions officials.

No city or town will be forced to change their elec­tion tim­ing, but they will regain the free­dom to choose. If a city or town wants to, it can decide to have its exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive posi­tions elect­ed at times when turnout is con­sis­tent­ly over fifty or even six­ty per­cent rather than under fifty or forty percent.

The end result will be more inclu­sive city and town gov­ern­ment, with elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives cho­sen by the many rather than a few.

We thank the Sen­ate State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee for giv­ing our bill a “do pass” rec­om­men­da­tion so our leg­is­la­tion can receive fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion this ses­sion. Now it’s on to the Rules Committee!

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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