One of NPI’s priorities for this legislative session is advancing voting justice and simplifying our elections system by allowing Washington’s cities and towns to move their elections for mayor, council, and other legislative or executive positions to even numbered years, when voter turnout is higher and more diverse.
Our bill to do this, SB 5723, hasn’t attracted much opposition — Tim Eyman was the only one to speak against it during the public hearing — but we know there are a few folks out there who are skeptical of the merits of this idea.
We want to emphasize that what we’re proposing is not a new idea. Actually, it’s a return to the framework that we used in the initial decades after statehood.
It used to be that many cities in Washington had the power to choose when their elections would be held. That’s right: they once had the same freedom our bill proposes to give them! We know this because we’ve researched the history.
The statute that governs the timing of municipal elections is RCW 29A.04.330. It is more than one hundred years old — it dates back to 1921!
You can read the original law here. (Thankfully, the Code Reviser maintains copies of our old laws and it is therefore possible to look up the history of the law without having to pull out a dusty volume from the law library!)
In the early decades of the state, local elections were not held in the autumn, they were held in the springtime and terms began on the first Monday in June. This default persisted through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Some were held in even years, some were held in odd years.
In 1955, the Legislature amended the law.
As of that point, the law stated explicitly that municipal elections were to be held on the second Tuesday in March in even-numbered years by default but there was a carve-out for “first class” cities that had charters providing that regular city elections be held on a biennial basis in odd numbered years.
Then, in 1963, the Legislature passed a law adopting a new default for everybody.
Municipal elections moved to autumns of odd numbered years:
All city, town, and district elections, except as lesser constituencies in hereinafter provided, whether general or special, and whether for the election of municipal or district officers or for the submission to the voters of any city, town or district of any question for their adoption and approval, or rejection, shall be held in Class AA or Class A counties on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in the odd-numbered years …
So the state-level odd year requirement for cities and towns dates back to 1963.
It went into effect in 1967.
There can’t be many voters who are still alive who voted when municipal elections were normally held in even years — it truly has been a long time.
This legislative session is the sixty year anniversary of the legislative-prescribed changeover. What was the rationale? For some, it may have been to spread things out to create an annual cadence. It may also have been to stack the deck to ensure local elections would be decided by an older, whiter electorate. System racism is sadly part of Washington’s history as well as this country’s history.
The law itself says:
The purpose of this section is to change the time of holding all general city, town, and district elections in Class AA and Class A counties from March of either the even-numbered or odd-numbered years, as the case may be, to a common election date, being the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the odd-numbered years, and further, to change the time of holding regular port district elections in Class AA and Class A counties and park and recreation districts in Class AA counties from the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the even numbered years to the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the odd-numbered years.
King County became a home rule charter county in 1969 and thus its switch to odd year elections came after cities and towns were put into odd years. (The default timing for counties has continued to be in even-numbered years.)
PUDs (public utility districts) have notably always been excluded from the odd year elections requirement. Consequently, PUD elections have much better participation than port elections due to being held in even years.
Even year elections are extremely popular with voters and good for democracy. It doesn’t make sense that cities and towns are locked into odd-year timing. Counties have the freedom to switch to even years, as King County just voted to do, but cities cannot do this. Our bill will fix that. Let’s get it passed!