Elections

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.

Impor­tant­ly:

  • 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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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