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.
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.