A proposal to switch King County elections to even years will get its first public hearing at the June 1st Committee of the Whole meeting at 9:30am today. The legislation is aimed at increasing voter participation and is backed by King County Councilmembers Claudia Balducci, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Girmay Zahilay.
“Any legal and efficient action we can take to increase voter turnout is an action we definitely should take,” Zahilay said in an email. “It’s not debatable that even-year elections almost always see significantly higher voter turnout. So moving our local elections away from odd years and toward even years would be an important step for inviting more voices into our politics.”
Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) has pushed the proposal and launched a website seeking to answer questions about it. NPI Executive Director Andrew Villeneuve pointed out King County is out of step with many counties in Washington State that already elect their officers on even years. Working with County Chair Balducci, NPI put together an ordinance that “will give voters the power to change our plan of government so that all of our county level elections are aligned in cycles with robust turnout.”
“This autumn, we can take a big step to address voter fatigue and simplify our elections by amending the King County Charter to move elections for Assessor, Elections Director, Executive, and County Council to even-numbered years,” Villeneuve said in an email. “The vast majority of Washington’s 39 counties already elect their positions in even-numbered years, but King County doesn’t. It makes no sense that we elect our Prosecuting Attorney and Superior Court judges in even-numbered years, but then we elect our county legislators and three other executive branch positions in years when voter turnout is consistently lower as well as older, whiter, and richer.”
In comments at The Urbanist’s May meetup, Balducci said she was skeptical of even year election reform when first presented with the idea, but arguments from proponents ultimately won her over, with data showing decidedly higher turnout in even years across the board.
For his part, Zahilay indicated the change would be of particular benefit to voters in his district, which stretches from the U District to Renton along the eastern edge of Seattle and includes a large percentage of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents. Voter participation in the U District and the Rainier Valley is often quite low in odd years.
“In addition to being an electoral issue, this is an equity issue,” Zahilay added. “My district, which includes areas like South Seattle and Skyway, is home to low-income, BIPOC communities who face many barriers to voting. Moving local elections to even years, when there are more voter education, resources, and visibility around election season, would increase their turnout and help our county shape more representative and responsive governments.”
This pattern of stronger and more diverse turnout in even years is consistent.
“Decades of data shows that voter participation is much higher and more diverse in even-numbered years, but elections for Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and County Council can’t benefit because we’re filling those positions in odd-numbered years,” Villeneuve said.
NPI believes this simple change proposed could have a major impact.
“When the Council put seven charter amendments on the ballot in 2020 to reform King County government, including making the Sheriff an appointed position, we saw at least 1.1 million votes cast for and against on each,” Villeneuve added. “One year later, fewer than 600,000 votes were cast for Dow Constantine and Joe Nguyen in the 2021 King County Executive race. Think about that disparity for a few minutes. We could have had over a million voters participating in the selection of our King County Executive if the timing of that election had been twelve months different. We encourage everyone who cares about the future of our democracy here in King County to get involved in this effort.”
The State Legislature considered a statewide even year election reform bill sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D – SeaTac) but it ultimately died in committee in the House.
The immediate short-term impact of passing Balducci’s bill is that County Councilmembers, County Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, would win a three-year term instead of a four-year term at their next elections in order to convert elections to even years. Those offices would return to four-year terms as normal following that transition.
County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who is running against U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, has criticized the even-year election idea, arguing the ballot would get too long with more County races stacked on federal races, leading to voter drop-off down ballot. Critics have frequently cited this concern, but election data shows that the effect of higher overall turnout is much stronger than the down-ballot dropoff effect.
Some of Gregerson’s Republican colleagues on local government committee argued voters who don’t vote in odd years are just “lazy” and should get their act together. Some skeptics also argue the current arrangement helps provide work for political professionals and consultants in odd years and prevents a logjam scenario when mayors, councilmembers, county executives, county councilmembers, state legislators, federal legislators, statewide officeholders, and presidential campaigns would all be vying for attention, campaign contributions, and ad space at the same time.
Proponents, however, counter than the political ecosystem could readily adapt to an all even-year reality and actually do a better job of focusing voter attention.
Although most counties do their elections on even years, NPI noted they hoped King County’s move would prompt other holdouts — Snohomish and Whatcom, specifically — to follow their lead in adopting the even year format. “Cities like Seattle cannot make a similar change on their own due to a preemptive state law, but King County is free to make this change this year since it is a county,” Villeneuve added. “Our hope is that by doing this charter amendment and getting a vote of the people in King County’s largest jurisdiction for this idea, we can build momentum for the next iteration of our bill to phase out odd year elections.”
The County Council will be accepting public comment at its meeting today for those who care to weigh in, with virtual, written, and in-person options.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Clallam, San Juan, and Clark counties hold their county elections on odd years. They are charter counties like King County, but they already have adopted an even-year format. “Code” counties (which compose the majority of counties) automatically do their elections on even years as directed by State law.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.