New legislation proposed by Senator Javier Valdez and the Northwest Progressive Institute that would give Washington’s cities and towns the freedom to switch their elections to even-numbered years received its first-ever hearing today at the end of the Senate State Government Committee’s February 10th meeting.
SB 5723 had its first reading earlier this week in the Senate. It has fourteen cosponsors — about half of the Senate Democratic caucus.
NPI Legislative Director Kathy Sakahara, Professor Zoltan Hajnal of the UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, Anna Fahey of the Sightline Institute, Jazmine Smith of The Washington Bus, Councilmember Chris Roberts of Shoreline, Washington for Equitable Representation’s Kenia Peregrino, and Councilmember Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin all spoke eloquently in favor of the bill.
The committee unfortunately did not have time to hear from the Washington Community Alliance’s Denisse Guerrero or the Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s Joseph Lachman, who were also signed up to testify pro.
Judge Kevin Ringus of the District & Municipal Court Judges Association asked that the bill be amended to exclude municipal judge positions, citing concerns about different municipal judges being elected in different cycles.
NPI’s longtime foe Tim Eyman was the only person who spoke in opposition.
Our pro speakers collectively made the following great points in their testimony:
- Data clearly shows that when local elections are moved to even-numbered years, turnout goes way up (as much as doubling or more!) and becomes way, way more diverse. With one timing change, we can secure a massive participation boost in elections for important local positions.
- Every academic study conducted on election timing for local positions in this country has concluded that making this change is a win for democracy. You can find links to read each one of these studies at our Coalition for Even Year Elections website, evenyears.org.
- We know there’s a massive difference between youth voter turnout in odd and even-numbered years. In odd years, it’s anemic; in even-numbered years, it is much more robust. Our young people are our future and should be involved in selecting our elected representatives. We should elect our local positions when they and other underrepresented groups are more likely to vote due to higher civic awareness and increased media coverage.
- Voters love even year elections for local positions. NPI’s polling has previously found 2:1 support for phasing out odd year elections in Washington, and 69% of voters in King County last year backed our charter amendment to move twelve county positions to even-numbered years.
- While Washington and its neighbor Oregon are both national leaders at encouraging voter participation and have been tied in voter turnout in national elections, Washington trails badly behind Oregon in local election voter turnout. Washington’s turnout rates in local election are half of Oregon’s. Washington can do better and will do better with this legislation.
- Support for even year elections spans the ideological spectrum — significant numbers of Democratic, Republican, and independent voters are all enthusiastic. No wonder, then, that all thirteen ballot measures concerning election timing on the ballot across the country passed during last year’s midterms — most by overwhelming or lopsided margins.
- The experience of other states in the West shows that this reform works. California decided to let cities and towns move their elections to even years in 1986. Arizona did it in 2000, and Nevada did it in 2003. Since then, one city after another in those states has changed over to even-year elections. They did it when it made sense for them: after charter commissions recommended it, after city councils voted for it, after voters approved it.
- In cities like Port Angeles, we have often seen less than a quarter of the registered residents voting in odd-year elections, despite many candidates having a dedicated intention to increase voter participation through their campaigns. State law requires us to hold our city elections in odd years, even though data shows significantly fewer people vote in those elections.
- We have also seen that when cities hold a special election for a position in an even-numbered year due to a vacancy, the turnout in that special election is higher than the preceding and successive regularly-scheduled general elections. That’s because local elections in even years are essentially costless for voters: they’re already casting a ballot, so they can benefit from the convenience of thoughtfully timed elections.
- Potential impacts on ballot length and the length of the voter’s pamphlet would be limited if SB 5723 passes. That’s because no voter lives in more than one city, and most cities elect three or four councilmembers every other year, so in most cases it would move three to four ballot items from underutilized odd year ballots to even year ballots.
Tim Eyman’s arguments against our bill were nonsensical. Eyman argued that separating local elections from state and federal elections is a good thing (without offering any reasons or justifications as to why) and also suggested that we ought to keep doing what we’ve been doing because we’ve been doing it for a long time, despite the mountain of evidence that most voters would prefer a change.
Eyman also made it sound as though we do all of our electing for local positions in odd numbered years and so there’s a nice, clear delineation between state/federal and local elections under our current setup. But that is not the case.
Thirty-six out of thirty-nine counties elect their offices in even years now, and as alluded to above, King County is beginning the process of joining them following passage of our charter amendment. That process will be complete by 2028.
Local public utility districts (PUDs) also hold their regular elections in even numbered years as expressly allowed by state law.
Cities and towns once had the freedom to choose their election timing, but the Legislature took that freedom away from them in the 1963 session and forced them all into odd years. We now have decades of data showing that local jurisdictions do not benefit from going alone in their own years.
It is time to fix the mistake that the 1963 Legislature made and end a failed experiment by passing Senate Bill 5723.
Our team at NPI is grateful to everyone who testified pro today or signed in pro. We had well over one hundred people sign in pro and just a handful register opposition. We are particularly appreciative to the Association of Washington Cities for signing in pro and endorsing our bill — working with them to get the language right has been very pleasant and rewarding, and we look forward to continuing to develop this legislation with them and other stakeholders.