State lawmaker: Bill moving Washington elections to even years is a ‘common sense’ shift

Jan 25, 2022, 3:38 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2022, 7:44 am
Ballot drop box King County, elections even year...
A King County ballot box. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

A newly-proposed bill in the state Legislature would seek to move most of Washington’s statewide and local elections to even years.

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The measure is being sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Mia Gregerson, and would apply to a vast majority of state, county, city, town, and district general elections, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions include votes on levies and tax increases, special elections to fill unexpired terms for departing members of Congress, and recalls.

Rep. Gregerson — who describes her proposal as a “common sense” shift — cites low voter turnout in odd-year elections as the driving factor behind the bill, in addition to the cost savings from reducing the total number of elections.

“We’re just trying to get to a place where elections are costing less and more people are participating,” Gregerson told MyNorthwest. “I think we all believe that a better democracy is when more people turn out, regardless of the outcome.”

Washington has traditionally seen dramatically lower turnout numbers in its odd-year elections. Between 2010 and 2021, the state has averaged 43% turnout in odd years, compared to 74% in even years.

At the city level, Seattle holds its mayoral and city attorney elections exclusively in odd years, and has seen similarly depressed turnout numbers as a result. In the city’s latest mayoral election, roughly 56% of eligible voters cast ballots, compared to 88% who turned out in 2020. With seven out of nine council seats up for grabs in 2019, district-level turnout ranged between 50% and 59%, while 2018 saw 79% of voters show up to vote on seven municipal judge races, all of which featured candidates running unopposed.

That discrepancy has been pointed out by former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has expressed his own support for Rep. Gregerson’s bill. He points out that, across the Puget Sound region, the people most likely to vote in odd years generally come from wealthier neighborhoods with a higher percentage of white residents.

“Every state legislator who supports federal reforms on voter access should also support state legislation to end odd-year elections,” McGinn said on Twitter. “Both will ensure more voices are heard in elections. Supporting election rules that reduce turnout — that’s undemocratic. (Washington) can show a better way.”

A recent survey released by the Northwest Progressive Institute also found wide support for a move to even-year elections. Out of 909 registered Washington voters, 52% said they either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the proposal, while 24% said that they either “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree.” Another 24% said they were unsure.

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Among those pushing back against the shift is anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, who claims that such a proposal would lead to “complete unchecked power.”

“It would completely let off the hook whenever the Legislature meets in an odd year, and give the citizens no chance to challenge anything the Legislature would end up doing,” he said during a public hearing for the bill. “This is a basic attack on the people’s right to be able to participate in their government — if the Legislature is going to meet every year, the people should have the right to put on a check on that power as well.”

Eyman has sponsored 16 ballot initiatives dating back to 1998. Of those, seven were put on the ballot in even years, five of which were approved by voters. Nine were voted on in odd years, with six succeeding. That said, Eyman hasn’t got an initiative on an even-year ballot since 2012.

Past efforts to pass legislation similar to Gregerson’s have failed to make it far in the state Legislature, although she remains hopeful of her chances this time around.

“I haven’t seen any major amendments to it that would cause the bill to get stalled, at least at this point,” she noted. “I’m very excited to potentially see its time on the floor.”

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State lawmaker: Bill moving Washington elections to even years is a ‘common sense’ shift