NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, December 4th, 2023

NPI makes the case for letting cities switch to even year elections on KUOW’s Soundside

Last week, Wash­ing­ton saw the worst turnout for a gen­er­al elec­tion in state his­to­ry, with just 36.41% of reg­is­tered vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in this year’s local elec­tions. The dread­ful turnout is spurring inter­est in and dis­cus­sion of NPI’s leg­is­la­tion to allow cities and towns to move their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions to even years if they want, which would alle­vi­ate (at least for our munic­i­pal­i­ties) prob­lems stem­ming from extreme­ly lack­lus­ter par­tic­i­pa­tion in local elections.

Today, on NPI’s behalf, I joined Pro­fes­sor Mark Smith of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton on KUOW’s Sound­side to dis­cuss the state’s 2023 turnout and our munic­i­pal elec­toral tim­ing reform leg­is­la­tion, SB 5723, spon­sored by Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez, with a com­pan­ion due to be intro­duced by State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Darya Fari­var soon. Sound­side is a real­ly cool pod­cast show that seeks to tell sto­ries that con­nect us to our com­mu­ni­ty — local­ly, nation­al­ly and glob­al­ly.

KUOW’s Lib­by Denkmann asked Pro­fes­sor Smith and I to respond to Sec­re­tary of State Steve Hobbs’ com­ments on elec­tion tim­ing reform.

Sec­re­tary Hobbs, who our team enjoys work­ing with on a range of elec­tion secu­ri­ty and vot­ing jus­tice issues, isn’t yet con­vinced that allow­ing cities and towns to switch their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions is a good idea. Like King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber Rea­gan Dunn, who in 2022 opposed our char­ter amend­ment to move twelve King Coun­ty posi­tions to even years, Hobbs has expressed con­cerns about local issues get­ting buried and bal­lots get­ting longer.

Pro­fes­sor Smith and I were asked about these concerns.

I observed that we have over a half cen­tu­ry of data show­ing that far more Wash­ing­to­ni­ans turn out for even year elec­tions than odd year elec­tions, and it takes a lot less ener­gy to get some­one to vote down­bal­lot in an even year than it does to con­vince some­one to vote at all in an odd-num­bered year.

Pro­fes­sor Smith agreed, not­ing that research has found that the more fre­quent­ly peo­ple are asked to vote, the worse the turnout gets.

Here’s an excerpt from KUOW’s writ­ten sum­ma­ry of the show:

Sec­re­tary of State Hobbs oppos­es the move to even-year elec­tions. He argues that vot­ers won’t have time to learn about local races, and there will be a lot of undervotes.

He also thinks can­di­dates for small­er races won’t be able to break through in grab­bing vot­er atten­tion. He also points out staffing issues for coun­ty elec­tions offices.

But, while there may be a lot going on dur­ing even year elec­tions, Vil­leneuve says that also means increased inter­est in the elec­tions. Accord­ing to can­vassers, just know­ing that the elec­tions are hap­pen­ing is a plus for local races.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Pro­fes­sor Mark Smith agrees.

“The more times you ask peo­ple to vote, the few­er times they actu­al­ly do vote because of vot­er fatigue,” Smith says. “So there cer­tain­ly is high­er turnout, when you con­cen­trate more races on the on the same ballot.”

Defend­ers of the sta­tus quo have not pro­duced evi­dence or data jus­ti­fy­ing the claim that local issues and con­cerns get “buried” in even years, but they keep mak­ing the argu­ment. A few years back, schol­ar Michael D. Hart­ney decid­ed to inves­ti­gate whether the argu­ment had any mer­it. He worked with a col­league to ascer­tain if vot­ers who choose to engage are more knowl­edge­able about local issues in odd years ver­sus even years, look­ing at school boards as an example.

They found there was no sig­nif­i­cant difference:

David Hous­ton and I exam­ined whether cit­i­zens who vote in off-cycle school board races are more knowl­edge­able about edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy in their dis­tricts than those cit­i­zens who vote in on-cycle [even year] board con­tests. To do so, we exam­ined on- and off-cycle [odd year] vot­ers’ respons­es to sev­er­al ques­tions embed­ded in the annu­al, nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Edu­ca­tion Next (EN) poll field­ed by Har­vard University’s Pro­gram on Edu­ca­tion Pol­i­cy and Gov­er­nance (PEPG).

Over­all, on- and off-cycle school-board vot­ers demon­strat­ed sim­i­lar lev­els of knowl­edge about school spend­ing and school per­for­mance in their local com­mu­ni­ties, as well as equal famil­iar­i­ty with char­ter school­ing. In sum, we found no evi­dence to sug­gest that mov­ing school-board elec­tions on-cycle would increase vot­er igno­rance of edu­ca­tion issues.

Empha­sis is mine. You can read Hart­ney’s paper, Revi­tal­iz­ing Local
Democ­ra­cy: The Case for On-Cycle Local Elec­tions, at the web­site of the Man­hat­tan Insti­tute. Man­hat­tan is a right wing think tank which pri­mar­i­ly focus­es  on Amer­i­can domes­tic pol­i­cy and urban affairs.

We know from our own research that Wash­ing­ton vot­ers would rather have a longer bal­lot with more items on it every oth­er year then be asked to vote up to four times a year, every year. They’re quite enthu­si­as­tic about sim­pli­fy­ing our sys­tem of elec­tions. While it’s not going to be fea­si­ble to sud­den­ly stop hold­ing all local elec­tions in odd-num­bered years, we do have an oppor­tu­ni­ty in the 2024 ses­sion to give elect­ed lead­ers and vot­ers at a crit­i­cal lev­el of local gov­ern­ment the free­dom to choose their elec­tion tim­ing by pass­ing Sen­ate Bill 5723.


  • Our leg­is­la­tion does not require cities and towns to do any­thing, or impose any tim­ing changes on them. The default tim­ing would remain in odd years.
  • There would be min­i­mal impacts on bal­lot length because no vot­er lives in more than one munic­i­pal­i­ty and pret­ty much all of them stag­ger their terms between cycles (e.g. three city coun­cil seats and pos­si­bly a strong may­or elect­ed in one cycle, four coun­cil seats in anoth­er.) At most, under our leg­is­la­tion, an even year bal­lot might see four or so addi­tion­al items on it, from the voter’s point of view.
  • Due to the time involved in switch­ing (a city must decide to switch, then elect its posi­tions one last time in odd years to bridge terms, which would most often be three years in length) audi­tors would have sev­er­al years of lead time to imple­ment changeovers for those cities and towns that choose even years for their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elections.

It is not unprece­dent­ed for munic­i­pal items to appear on even year bal­lots — cur­rent law already allows cities/towns to sub­mit bal­lot mea­sures to even year bal­lots and fill vacant posi­tions with spe­cial elec­tions… spe­cial elec­tions that we know see much high­er and more diverse turnout than the reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled munic­i­pal elec­tions we’re hold­ing in odd years.

In Wash­ing­ton, we hold reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions for most coun­ty posi­tions, pub­lic util­i­ty dis­trict posi­tions, and some munic­i­pal judge­ships in even years. Data shows most vot­ers par­tic­i­pate in these down­bal­lot races.

Giv­en the impor­tance of deci­sions made at the munic­i­pal lev­el, it does­n’t make sense that we are lock­ing munic­i­pal­i­ties into low turnout odd years and pro­hibit­ing them from choos­ing their elec­tion tim­ing. Cities else­where in the coun­try have seen great results from switch­ing, and our cities and towns ought to have the free­dom to decide for them­selves what tim­ing they want.

And, as men­tioned, even year elec­tions are extreme­ly pop­u­lar with vot­ers. We have con­tin­u­ous­ly found this across our polling and it’s been con­firmed in actu­al elec­tions. Across the coun­try, every sin­gle mea­sure con­sid­ered by vot­ers to adopt even year elec­tions passed, includ­ing our char­ter amend­ment in King Coun­ty, which 69%+ of vot­ers said yes to. Even year elec­tions are a reform that the peo­ple want, and it’s impor­tant that we lis­ten to them.

You can lis­ten to the dis­cus­sion with Sec­re­tary Hobbs, Pro­fes­sor Smith, and I on KUOW’s web­site, or using your favorite pod­cast play­er.

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  1. Doing away with Tim Eyman’s ridicu­lous ‘advi­so­ry votes’ will short­en the even year bal­lots sig­nif­i­cant­ly. So, a few more races on the bal­lot won’t real­ly make it longer.

    # by Mary Bryant :: December 5th, 2023 at 5:36 AM
    • Pre­cise­ly, Mary! Thanks for point­ing that out.

      # by Andrew Villeneuve :: December 6th, 2023 at 11:04 AM
  2. I con­cur with the con­clu­sions from the research. Mr. Hobbs’ con­cerns are with out mer­it, sounds like he is mere­ly opposed to change.

    # by Chris Thompson :: December 15th, 2023 at 12:06 PM
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