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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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WA lawmakers revive call to let cities have elections in even-numbered years

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OLYMPIA — Did you vote?

If not, you’re in substantial company.

According to preliminary data, roughly 64% of eligible Washington voters didn’t cast a ballot in the Nov. 7 general election, when 3,095 races for city, school board and other local offices were up for election.

It’s part of a trend, with more voters sitting out odd-year elections in Washington. According to preliminary figures as of Nov. 21, this November’s election could set a record for low turnout, with about 36% of voters submitting accepted ballots.

In King County, 317 races were on the ballot, and the figures were roughly the same: Less than 37% of eligible voters turned out.

For decades, Washington’s city and local district elections have been in odd-numbered years, thanks to state law. You can think of Washington’s election schedule like a sandwich: Federal and state races occur in even years, and many local races in the odd years between.

Participation is far lower in odd-year elections, state data shows.

Since 2014, the median voter turnout has been about 33 percentage points lower in odd years than for elections in even years, according to a Seattle Times analysis of voter turnout data for the past decade.

Voter turnout for odd-year elections has been lower in the past 10 years compared with previous decades.

After what is shaping up to be lackluster turnout in the most recent election, some state lawmakers are trying to revive a bill that would let cities have their elections in even years.

Supporters say moving city elections could boost turnout for local contests, and by extension the results would better represent the preferences of a broader and more diverse swath of Washington voters.

Supporters point to research showing participants in odd-year elections tend to be older, whiter and less representative of the electorate.

Earlier this year, Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, sponsored legislation to let cities switch. Senate Bill 5723 got a public hearing and was voted out of a policy committee. It didn’t get to the floor for a vote before the legislative session ended.

Valdez plans to pursue it again this coming year, when Washington will have its even-year short session. Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, is planning to introduce a companion bill in the House.

“Our democracy is only as strong as the amount of folks who are turning out to participate in it,” Farivar said. “And I think us as the Legislature and elected officials … our job is to do the best we can to meet people where they’re at, especially folks who might be the most underrepresented, the most marginalized in our communities.”

Cities could still choose to have their elections in odd years if they wanted — the bill would just let them decide.

To make the switch, a city council would have to pass an ordinance or city voters would have to pass a ballot initiative to make the change.

There’s precedent for that: In 2022, King County voters amended the county charter to switch elections for county offices to even years, starting in 2026. The county was able to do that because unlike cities, counties are not prohibited by state law from having elections in even years. Most Washington counties have their elections in even years.

This summer, outbound Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda proposed staggering elections for council members so fewer were on the ballot in each odd-year election to help with turnout and turnover on the council. She is also supportive of switching to even-year elections, but neither idea got traction with her colleagues.

State law would need to change before the city could have elections in even years.

The state proposal has doubters.

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs opposes moving to even-year elections. He acknowledges that turnout is higher in even years but argues such a move could “drown out” local races.

“We’re trying to do our part to increase voter turnout,” Hobbs said. “But the problem is, if you have everyone running in an even year, you’re going to drown out your city council members, your local mayors, your city, your school district.”

In King County, voters historically have filled out a higher share of items on their ballots in even years than in odd years, according to an analysis by the Northwest Progressive Institute, which is backing the even-year elections bill.

There’s also concern about workload. Opponents say spreading out elections allows for more consistent staffing year-to-year rather than ramping up for bigger elections every two years.

County auditors opposed the bill this year, concerned about staffing and the length of ballots should local elections move to even years, said Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the Senate State Government & Elections Committee.

Hobbs worries smaller counties with small budgets could cut their elections workforces.

“They’re going to want to get rid of those election workers,” Hobbs said. “And then you’re kind of stuck with getting new people each election, and they don’t even know how to turn on the tabulation machine.”

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