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)

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!

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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