HB 1932: Allowing Even Year Elections for Localities
House Bill 1932 would allow Washington localities to switch their elections to even-numbered years (NPI artwork)

This morn­ing, The Her­ald of Everett pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al voic­ing mea­sured oppo­si­tion to the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s top 2024 leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty, argu­ing that it would be “pre­ma­ture” to pass leg­is­la­tion giv­ing local­i­ties cur­rent­ly locked into odd-num­bered years the free­dom to switch to even years, when vot­er turnout is much high­er and also sig­nif­i­cant­ly more diverse.

“There is mer­it in the idea,” The Her­ald’s edi­to­r­i­al board con­ced­ed. “Yet while not all cities and dis­tricts are like­ly to move to make the switch, those cities and dis­tricts inter­est­ed in a switch will also not want to make a change with­out know­ing more about how this will work and what results are expected.”

“Until there are more cer­tain answers about how to pro­ceed, law­mak­ers should elect to put off a change,” the news­pa­per concluded.

We strong­ly dis­agree on all counts.

Here’s why House Bill 1932 is far from premature.

Legislative work on election timing has been ongoing for several years, yielding this reasonable, modest bill

The Her­ald’s edi­to­r­i­al neglects to men­tion that House Bill 1932 is the prod­uct of years of leg­isla­tive work on elec­tion tim­ing by state law­mak­ers and orga­ni­za­tions like the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute. Bills to change elec­tion tim­ing have been under con­sid­er­a­tion in the Leg­is­la­ture since the 2020 leg­isla­tive session.

That was four years ago.

Prime spon­sor Mia Gregerson and advo­cates have lis­tened to the con­cerns voiced by elec­tions offi­cials. HB 1932 seeks to address as many of those con­cerns as pos­si­ble. It is mod­est and rea­son­able in scope. Unlike past pro­pos­als, the ver­sion of HB 1932 that passed the House is a local options bill. It does not phase out odd year elec­tions. It does not change the cur­rent defaults. It sim­ply allows local­i­ties that want to begin plan­ning and pur­su­ing a switch to even years to do so.

There’s no rea­son to wait to do this. Vot­er turnout in odd years keeps declin­ing. In the past decade, every sin­gle odd year elec­tion we’ve held has either set a new record for worst turnout or come close. 2023 saw the worst statewide gen­er­al elec­tion turnout in state his­to­ry, 2017 was sec­ond worst, 2015 was third worst, 2021 was fourth worst, 2019 was ninth worst, and 2013 was tenth worst. That’s a dread­ful trend, and the avail­able evi­dence sug­gests it will con­tin­ue in the future.

Sight­line’s research, cit­ed by The Her­ald, finds munic­i­pal­i­ties are pay­ing a hefty penal­ty for being forced to hold their elec­tions in odd-num­bered years.

We need to act to lis­ten to what vot­ers are say­ing and act to address elec­tion fatigue. We should­n’t keep dither­ing. Change can be hard — our team remem­bers many audi­tors voic­ing deep reser­va­tions about same-day vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and pre­paid postage for bal­lot return envelopes — but those reforms were worth it. We made the right choice as a state to go ahead with them and imple­ment them.

Letting localities switch to even years is an old, tested idea

Pri­or to the 1960s, many local­i­ties in Wash­ing­ton were allowed to hold their elec­tions in even-num­bered years, and did. For exam­ple, in Seat­tle, may­oral elec­tions were tra­di­tion­al­ly held in the spring­time of pres­i­den­tial years.

How­ev­er, in 1963, the Leg­is­la­ture passed a law forc­ing all cities and towns to move their reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled elec­tions to odd years, and gave munic­i­pal­i­ties until 1967 to come into com­pli­ance. They’ve been locked into odd years ever since, along with oth­er lev­els of local gov­ern­ment like ports and school districts.

Mean­while, oth­er local gov­ern­ments stayed in even years, notably coun­ties (with the excep­tion of a few char­ter coun­ties west of the Cas­cades) and pub­lic util­i­ty dis­tricts, or PUDs. This has led to a sig­nif­i­cant dis­par­i­ty in par­tic­i­pa­tion. Coun­ty and PUD elec­tions con­sis­tent­ly see healthy turnout despite appear­ing down­bal­lot, while munic­i­pal elec­tions have increas­ing­ly seen abysmal turnout.

The excep­tion has been when a munic­i­pal­i­ty or spe­cial dis­trict gets to hold a spe­cial elec­tion to fill a vacan­cy in an even year. Data shows that those spe­cial elec­tions attract more vot­ers than the reg­u­lar­ly-sched­uled elec­tions for those same seats a year lat­er, due to being on an even-year bal­lot. Sim­i­lar­ly, local propo­si­tions get way more votes for and against in even years than in odd years.

There’s plen­ty of prece­dent, in oth­er words, for what we’re propos­ing. You could say that it’s an old, proven idea rather than a new idea.

We know how House Bill 1932 will work

Con­trary to what The Her­ald’s edi­to­r­i­al board wrote, we know how House Bill 1932 will work. The process for switch­ing to even years is spelled out in the bill.

A local gov­ern­ment that wish­es to make the change can either do so through a vote of its gov­ern­ing body or a vote of the peo­ple in its jurisdiction.

If the deci­sion is made by the gov­ern­ing body, mul­ti­ple hear­ings spaced thir­ty days apart must be held. A local gov­ern­ment must noti­fy the coun­ty or coun­ties in which it is locat­ed by Jan­u­ary 15th of the year in which it wants to begin the switch, and it must elect the posi­tions that will be migrat­ing to even years to spe­cial bridge terms that are short­er than they would ordi­nar­i­ly be. At the end of those bridge terms, elec­tions are then held for new terms at their usu­al lengths.

Coun­ty audi­tors will have plen­ty of warn­ing and time to imple­ment these changes. They’ll have the bet­ter part of a year of notice before a local gov­ern­ment begins elect­ing for bridge terms, and years of notice before a local gov­ern­ment cur­rent­ly in odd years moves into an even-year cycle for the first time.

We know what results are expected

“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,” write Zoltan L. Haj­nal, Vladimir Kogan, and G. Agustin Markar­i­an in the Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Review. The data is extreme­ly clear and com­pelling: mov­ing local elec­tions to even years leads to much more robust and diverse participation.

States around the coun­try have already adopt­ed even year elec­tions for local­i­ties, includ­ing Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona. New York Gov­er­nor Kathy Hochul just signed a bill to bring even year elec­tions to most of the Empire State’s local gov­ern­ments. In those states that have adopt­ed even year elec­tions for local­i­ties, the results have been excel­lent, as Pro­fes­sor Haj­nal not­ed to the House State Gov­ern­ment & Trib­al Rela­tions Com­mit­tee in his tes­ti­mo­ny sup­port­ing HB 1932 last month.

When an Amer­i­can munic­i­pal­i­ty switch­es to even year elec­tions, turnout goes way up and becomes more diverse. We know this because it’s been studied.

Researchers have found this leads to bet­ter pol­i­cy­mak­ing, as well. Sarah F. Anzia found that even year elec­tions can reduce the influ­ence of pow­er­ful inter­ests and Adam Dynes, Hans J. G. Has­sell and Matthew R. Miles found even year elec­tions can be a cat­a­lyst for poli­cies that are more in line with con­stituents’ ideology.

Even-year elections are popular with voters everywhere

Although many coun­ty audi­tors in Wash­ing­ton are skep­ti­cal of our pro­pos­al, the evi­dence that vot­ers like the idea is over­whelm­ing. They are ready, and wait­ing for elec­tions offi­cials to catch up with them. Across the coun­try, pro­pos­als to move local elec­tions to even years rou­tine­ly pass with mas­sive margins.

In 2022, there were thir­teen local bal­lot mea­sures through­out the Unit­ed States on elec­tion tim­ing, with one our very own King Coun­ty Char­ter Amend­ment 1. All of them passed. Yes, every last one! In King Coun­ty, 69%+ of vot­ers said yes to our pro­pos­al to move twelve coun­ty posi­tions to even-num­bered years.

Addi­tion­al­ly, our polling has con­sis­tent­ly found high sup­port for even-year elec­tions in Wash­ing­ton. In 2021, we found 2:1 sup­port among like­ly vot­ers statewide for phas­ing out odd year elec­tions, and we pub­lished our find­ing here on The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. In 2022, ahead of the vote on our char­ter amend­ment, we found lop­sided sup­port for it in two suc­ces­sive polls of King Coun­ty voters.

More recent­ly, in 2023, we asked vot­ers in Sno­homish Coun­ty, where The Her­ald is based, for their views on the idea. We found 57% of them favor even year elec­tions for their coun­ty posi­tions. Just 12% were opposed and 31% were not sure. (Sno­homish is one of two coun­ties besides King that has been elect­ing its posi­tions in odd years; the oth­er is What­com County).

Implementation concerns are solvable

NPI stands ready to work with the Ever­green State’s coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials in their efforts to smooth­ly imple­ment any tran­si­tions to even year elec­tions request­ed by Wash­ing­ton local­i­ties under this leg­is­la­tion. In oth­er states, the tran­si­tions have gone very well, and there’s no rea­son they could­n’t here too.

We under­stand con­cerns about bal­lot length and work­force reten­tion. We are the orga­ni­za­tion that led the effort to get rid of Tim Eyman’s advi­so­ry votes push polls — the only suc­cess­ful leg­isla­tive effort in recent mem­o­ry to free up valu­able real estate on bal­lots. We under­stand where audi­tors are com­ing from, and our team will be glad­ly lob­by­ing for more resources for them, as we have in the past.

But we also know the sta­tus quo is unwork­able. Vot­ers don’t want to vote up to four times a year, every year. They want to sim­pli­fy our sys­tem of elections.

We need to lis­ten to the vot­ers rather than attempt­ing to jus­ti­fy the con­tin­u­a­tion of a sys­tem that we know isn’t work­ing and isn’t good for democracy.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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