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)

For the first time since the 1960s, cities in Wash­ing­ton would be allowed to hold their reg­u­lar­ly-sched­uled in even-num­bered years, when data shows that vot­er turnout is high­er and much more diverse, under a bill intro­duced by Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez (D‑46th Dis­trict: Seat­tle) and devel­oped by our team at NPI.

Sen­ate Bill 5723 gives cities and towns across the Ever­green State the option of switch­ing the tim­ing of their elec­tions from odd-num­bered to even-num­bered years. Cur­rent state law requires that cities and towns go in odd-num­bered years. Our bill amends that statute and spec­i­fies a process by which a city or town may begin elect­ing its coun­cilmem­bers, may­or, and oth­er offi­cials in even years.

Char­ter coun­ties already have the free­dom to choose their tim­ing (and all but two have cho­sen even years, the default for coun­ties) but cities and towns do not.

Our leg­is­la­tion would give them the free­dom to choose.

By default, cities and towns’ elec­tions would stay in odd-num­bered years.

But they could choose to switch if they want­ed, to secure for their peo­ple the well-doc­u­ment­ed ben­e­fits of hold­ing elec­tions in pres­i­den­tial or midterm cycles when vot­er turnout is typ­i­cal­ly above six­ty or even sev­en­ty percent.

Local­i­ties across the coun­try vot­ed to do just that last year. In every sin­gle one of the juris­dic­tions where an even year elec­tions propo­si­tion was on the bal­lot in 2022, it passed eas­i­ly, includ­ing here in Wash­ing­ton State, where King Coun­ty vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly backed an NPI pro­pos­al spon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Clau­dia Bal­duc­ci to switch the coun­ty’s elec­tions into even-num­bered years.

That mea­sure, King Coun­ty Char­ter Amend­ment 1, got a 69% yes vote.

Cities and towns now set to make the switch else­where in the coun­try include Boul­der, Col­orado, St. Peters­burg, Flori­da, and San Fran­cis­co, Cal­i­for­nia.

Those places are all part of a grow­ing pop­u­lar move­ment for even-year elec­tions that our research shows Wash­ing­to­ni­ans want to be a part of.

The case for even-year local elections is compelling

“Every pub­lished study on elec­tion tim­ing and vot­er turnout shows that com­bin­ing local elec­tions with state and fed­er­al elec­tions is the sin­gle most effec­tive change that local gov­ern­ments can make to increase turnout,” Zoltan L. Haj­nal, Vladimir Kogan, and G. Agustin Markar­i­an write in the Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Review.

Imag­ine being able to as much as dou­ble the turnout for impor­tant local offices — and diver­si­fy it by an even greater mag­ni­tude — with just one struc­tur­al change. Well, that’s what even-year elec­tions for local gov­ern­ments can do for us.

Addi­tion­al­ly, even-year elec­tions help us address the prob­lem of elec­tion fatigue: vot­ers tired of elec­tions that are imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by more elec­tions. For exam­ple, here in Wash­ing­ton, it’s been less than two months since the 2022 midterms were cer­ti­fied, but already, for some, it’s time to vote again.

That’s right: the 2023 Feb­ru­ary spe­cial elec­tion is upon us! Seat­tle vot­ers are con­sid­er­ing Ini­tia­tive 135 (social hous­ing), for exam­ple, right now.

Elec­tion Day is next Tues­day, Feb­ru­ary 14th.

That’ll be fol­lowed by an April 2023 spe­cial elec­tion in King Coun­ty and oth­er juris­dic­tions, then the August 2023 Top Two, then the Novem­ber 2023 gen­er­al, and so on. The lat­ter two win­dows are when cities and towns will hold their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions as state law present­ly requires.

If we take NPI’s home­town of Red­mond as an exam­ple, we can see from look­ing at vot­er turnout that there is a big dif­fer­ence between even and odd years.

Red­mond last elect­ed a may­or in 2019; it last held coun­cil elec­tions in 2021.

In each of those years, as well as in con­test­ed elec­tions going back even fur­ther, turnout has been well under fifty per­cent. A major­i­ty has­n’t returned bal­lots in Red­mond’s reg­u­lar­ly held elec­tions in over a decade.

Last year, by con­trast, Red­mond had a pub­lic safe­ty levy on the ballot.

This was a down­bal­lot item, just like may­or and coun­cil elec­tions, but because it appeared on the bal­lot in an even year, the turnout exceed­ed fifty percent.

In fact, Red­mond came close to two-thirds turnout. Far more Red­mon­ders vot­ed for and against this pub­lic safe­ty levy than vot­ed for may­or in 2019, or for coun­cil in 2021, thanks to the tim­ing cho­sen for the proposition.

We can run a seem­ing­ly end­less set of com­par­isons just like this for any num­ber of cities in Wash­ing­ton. Our friend Chris Roberts offered up a set back in 2020 right here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. Again and again, the sto­ry is the same: more peo­ple vote on city-lev­el items if they are in an even-num­bered year.

Skep­tics of this reform keep non­sen­si­cal­ly argu­ing that mov­ing local elec­tions to even years will bury local issues, but the data shows that the oppo­site is true. More peo­ple pay atten­tion to and vote on issues and can­di­date elec­tions in their city when they are held in con­cert with state and fed­er­al elections.

Why? Because fed­er­al and state elec­tions are when the great­est num­ber of peo­ple are civi­cal­ly engaged. When local offices are made to stand on their own, they get less atten­tion. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in the polit­i­cal era we are cur­rent­ly in… an era in which local news cov­er­age is alarm­ing­ly and pre­cip­i­tous­ly declining.

Our team has heard this our­selves. Staff and board­mem­bers out doing vol­un­teer can­vass­ing have been told flat-out at the doors: We don’t vote in off years.

There is no such thing as an “off” year, of course — every elec­tion matters.

Sad­ly, many peo­ple don’t share that belief. We need to meet peo­ple where they are rather than ignor­ing their wish­es for a sim­pler sys­tem of elections.

We can con­tin­ue to require cities and towns — arguably the most impor­tant unit of local gov­ern­ment that we have, aside from coun­ties — to hold their elec­tions at times when most peo­ple don’t vote, and when the elec­torate that is turn­ing out tends to be old­er, whiter, and rich­er. Or, we can chart a dif­fer­ent course by pass­ing Sen­ate Bill 5723. We can give Wash­ing­ton cities and towns the free­dom to choose a reform that evi­dence shows is wild­ly pop­u­lar with vot­ers all over.

Sen­ate Bill 5723 will have a pub­lic hear­ing this Fri­day, Feb­ru­ary 10th at 8 AM in the Sen­ate State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee. You can express your sup­port for the bill by sign­ing in PRO right now using this direct link

Our team hopes you’ll join us in sup­port­ing this thought­ful, nec­es­sary legislation.

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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