Bipartisan momentum for even year elections across the United States is growing, judging by an effort underway in Montana by Republican legislators to move city and municipal elections to higher turnout presidential and midterm years.
Senator Chris Friedel, R‑Billings, recently won his colleagues’ support for a bill that would move elections for city and town officials (mayors, councilmembers, municipal judges) from odd to even-numbered years.
It’s now under consideration in the House of Representatives and had a hearing in the House Local Government Committee today. It’s a fairly simple bill, consisting of just four sections. Section (2), shown below, is the one that amends the existing election laws to change the timing by deleting just a few words:
Section 2. Section 13–1‑104, MCA, is amended to read:
“13–1‑104. Times for holding general elections. (1) A general election must be held throughout the state on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
(2) In every even-numbered year, the following elections must be held on general election day:
(a) an election on any ballot issue submitted to electors pursuant to Article III, section 6, unless the legislature orders a special election, or Article XIV, section 8, of the Montana constitution;
(b) an election of federal officers, members of the legislature, state officers, multicounty district officers elected at a statewide election, district court judges,
andcounty officers, and municipal officers; and
(c) any other election required by law to be held on general election day in an even-numbered year.
(3) In every odd-numbered year,
the following elections must be held on the same day as the general election: (a) an election of officers for municipalities required by law to hold the election; and (b)any other election required by law tomust be held on general election day in an odd-numbered year.”
Section 3, shown below, concerns implementation. There is more than one way to transition a local jurisdiction from odd to even-numbered years. Friedel has chosen the automatic term extensions approach, tacking one year on to the end of existing terms for local officeholders, as can be seen below:
NEW SECTION. Section 3. Transition. (1) (a) A municipal officer whose term ends in January 2024 shall be appointed to the office for an additional 1‑year term ending in January 2025.
(b) A municipal officer appointed as provided in subsection (1)(a) may run for reelection in 2024 if the officer is not otherwise restricted from running for reelection.
(2) (a) A municipal officer whose term ends in January 2026 shall be appointed to the office for an additional 1‑year term ending in January 2027.
(b) A municipal officer appointed as provided in subsection (2)(a) may run for reelection in 2026 if the officer is not otherwise restricted from running for reelection.
(3) The additional 1‑year term provided in subsections (1)(a) and (2)(a) may not be counted as a term of office when calculating whether the municipal officer has reached a term limit.
Friedel is backing an amendment to his bill to provide more time for the legislation to go into effect. As written, it would go into effect right after being signed.
It is really heartening to see this legislation not only being discussed, but acted upon in Montana. Voters across the ideological spectrum love even year elections, and whenever people get the chance to vote on a measure to simplify election timing, they vote yes. In 2022, there were thirteen such measures on the ballot across the country, including NPI’s King County Charter Amendment 1 here in Washington State. All of them passed, most by overwhelming margins.
Our charter amendment, sponsored by Councilmember Claudia Balducci and cosponsored by Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, received 69%+ of the vote.
Following the passage of our charter amendment, NPI worked with Senator Javier Valdez to develop state-level legislation that is similar in many respects to Senator Friedel’s Senate Bill 420, though it would be opt-in rather than mandatory.
NPI’s Senate Bill 5723 would give cities and towns the freedom to choose their election timing, eliminating a requirement dating back to the 1960s that they go in odd-numbered years. Municipal judge elections would stay in whichever cycles they are currently in (some cities, like Seattle, already elect judges in even years); only legislative and executive positions would be eligible for switching.
Our bill also utilizes a different implementation approach: bridge terms.
With that approach, terms for positions elected in odd numbered years that need to transition to even years end at their usual times but are then followed by special terms that are one year shorter than they otherwise would be.
Thereafter, term lengths revert back to a normal duration.
SB 5723 is currently in hibernation in the Senate Rules Committee. It will have an opportunity for further consideration by the Senate in the 2024 short session.
Friedel’s Senate Bill 420 has gotten some of the very same pushback that our King County Charter Amendment 1 got last year, with bill opponents suggesting that local issues would end up getting buried if local positions are elected at the same time that state and federal ones are. Friedel is thankfully unfazed:
Friedel told MTN he didn’t think city issues would get overshadowed by the other votes held at the same time. He argued a switch to even-year elections would improve turnout for municipal votes.
It’s truly refreshing to see a Republican elected official who gets it. Moving local elections to even-numbered years results in higher, more diverse turnout for those positions. The data is crystal clear on that. And holding local elections in midterm and presidential years doesn’t squelch discussions of local issues. In fact, it can elevate them, because the media devotes more resources to political coverage in even years and public awareness of elections is much greater.
If the House acts on SB 420 and Governor Greg Gianforte (R) signs it, Montana cities and towns could soon be on the path to electing their mayors, councilmembers, and municipal judge in high turnout even years. That would be a great boost for this important bipartisan cause in the greater Pacific Northwest.