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!