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.
[…] New legislation proposed by Senator Javier Valdez and the Northwest Progressive In… 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. […]