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)

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,
  • 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.

If you’d like to watch the hear­ing, it is avail­able for on-demand view­ing from TVW.

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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