As the 1960s drew to a close Seattle was forced by the Washington State Legislature to switch the timing of its officer elections.
In the first few decades that followed Washington’s admission to the United States as the 42nd state in the Union, it was standard practice to hold elections primarily in even-numbered years – including voting for many local positions.
Historical records maintained by the City of Seattle show that following the adoption of the city’s 1946 charter, officer elections were generally held in the springtime, about six months before presidential and midterm elections. Mid-twentieth century mayors of Seattle, like William F. Devin, Allan Pomeroy, Gordon S. Clinton, and J.D. (Dorm) Braman, were elected in March of presidential years, in the seasons leading up to the national party conventions. Regular council elections were also held at that time.
As the 1960s drew to a close, however, Seattle was forced to switch the timing of its regularly-scheduled officer elections by the Washington State Legislature, which passed a law requiring all cities and towns to hold their regularly scheduled elections in odd-numbered years. Seattle’s first council elections under this new system were in 1967, with the first mayoral election under the new defaults following in 1969, pitting Wes Uhlman against R. Mort Frayn.
More than half a century later, this law remains on the books, preventing cities and towns from choosing to hold their elections in even-numbered years when turnout is higher and more diverse. But our team at the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) has a plan to change that!
This past winter, following the overwhelming success of our charter amendment to shift elections for King County offices to even-numbered years, NPI and Senator Javier Valdez (D-46th District; Seattle) introduced legislation to empower cities and towns to regain the freedom to choose their own election timing. Our bill, SB 5723, was heard in the Senate State Government Committee on February 10th and received a “do pass” recommendation on February 17th. It’s been parked in the Senate Rules Committee since then.
Since bills carry over between odd and even-numbered legislative sessions, SB 5723 remains alive and can be brought out of hibernation when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2024.
The results of the recently-concluded August 2023 Top Two election provided fresh evidence of the need for SB 5723. Total countywide turnout was a mere 30.22%, falling short of King County Elections’ expectations.
In Seattle, turnout across the seven council districts averaged 35.66%, which is not much better.
As certification was approaching last week, our team at NPI took a look at the results and compared them to the April special election returns. We projected that the August Top Two election was likely to pass into the history books with a smaller turnout than what we saw in April, when the county held a special election to consider a crisis care centers levy.
And that is exactly what happened. Countywide turnout this month was 30.22%, with 417,521 ballots counted. In April, turnout was 30.32%, with 418,676 ballots counted.
We have reached the point where an odd year special election can draw more voters than a regular odd year qualifying election in which hundreds of positions are being contested.
This deeply concerning development is part of a trend NPI has been studying and reporting on for years. It has now been over a decade since a majority of voters in Washington State returned their ballots in an odd-numbered year. Of the top ten worst general election turnouts in state history, five are the last five odd-numbered general elections – 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. 2017 currently ranks as the worst, 2015 ranks as second worst, and 2021 ranks third. 2023 looks like it could be a contender for the title of worst-ever general election turnout.
At the same time that odd-year turnout has been declining, even-year turnout has been improving after a few down cycles. 2018 turnout in Washington State nearly set a record for a midterm cycle, easily surpassing 2014, while 2020 fell just short of setting a record for a presidential cycle, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Turnout in 2022 was not as good as 2018, but was still pretty respectable for a midterm cycle.
Although state law presently doesn’t allow cities and towns to hold their regularly-scheduled elections in even years, as mentioned, they are allowed to submit ballot measures to their voters in those higher turnout years. We can thus get a sense of how turnout would be better if cities and towns were electing their mayors, councilmembers, city attorneys, and other officers in even years.
City of Seattle 2021 General Election – Local Year
- Ballots Counted: 267,414
- Registered Voters: 489,996
- Turnout Percentage: 54.57%
City of Seattle 2020 General Election – Presidential Year
- Ballots Counted: 439,805
- Registered Voters: 498,754
- Turnout Percentage: 88.18%
172,391 more ballots were cast citywide in Seattle in the November 2020 general election than in the November 2021 general election. 415,062 votes were cast for and against 2020 Seattle Proposition 1, the transit levy, while 264,426 ballots were counted for the city’s mayoral finalists Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González one year later. That is a huge gulf!
The data is crystal clear: Local elections benefit from moving to even-numbered years.
And, importantly, there is no other electoral reform available that increases and diversifies turnout by this magnitude.
“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,” Zoltan L. Hajnal, Vladimir Kogan, and G. Agustin Markarian pointed out in a 2021 article for the American Political Science Review.
Imagine if Seattle had the freedom to elect its officers in even years instead of odd ones. Hundreds of thousands more voters would be participating in choosing the city’s leadership.
Seattle and Washington’s 280 other cities and towns could have that freedom as soon as mid-2024… if the House and Senate send our legislation to Governor Jay Inslee and he signs it into law next winter. Here’s an overview of how the process to change the city’s election timing could work, in order to get Seattle on the quickest possible path to a changeover.
Step One: The Council would need to submit a charter amendment to the voters authorizing a switch to even years
Seattle is what is known under Washington State law as a first-class city. This means it has the power to determine its form of government through a home rule charter, akin to a constitution at the local level. The current city charter dates back to 1946 and will need to be amended for Seattle to take advantage of the powers that our legislation would give it.
Following the effective date of Senate Bill 5723, the Seattle City Council would propose and adopt an ordinance providing for a change in the timing of elections for its municipal elections and transmit to the voters a charter amendment to enable the terms of office for mayor, city council, and city attorney to be shortened to three years on a one-time basis.
With respect to timing, the current city charter thankfully doesn’t lock Seattle into odd-numbered years. It simply says: “General municipal elections and special elections shall be held at such times, and for such purposes, as the City Council may, by ordinance, prescribe, subject to state law.” (See Article XVIII, Section 1.) However, term lengths for officer positions are explicitly fixed at four years: “The terms of the Mayor, the City Attorney, and of Councilmembers shall be four years.” (See Article XIX, Section 1.)
Since SB 5723 requires cities and towns transitioning to even-year elections to elect their officers to bridge terms, out of respect for the will of the voters, Seattle would need to hold a citywide vote to approve a charter amendment authorizing bridge terms to put the city on an even-year elections footing.
Charter amendments require a simple majority vote of the Council to be referred to voters.
“Upon the passage of any such amendment or amendments, the same shall be submitted to electors of the City for their ratification at the next general state or municipal election, which shall be at least sixty days after the adoption of such proposed amendment in the council,” Article XX of the Charter says. Seattle would also need to meet the county’s ballot measure submission deadline of August 6th, 2024.
Step Two: Seattle voters would need to approve the charter change
Assuming the Council met the August 6th submission deadline, a charter amendment authorizing a switch to even years would go before Seattle voters in November 2024, a high turnout presidential election cycle year.
The threshold for passage of charter amendments is a simple majority, so there would just need to be more yes votes than no votes. The power to decide the city’s election timing would be in the hands of Seattle voters, and there would be ample opportunity for a robust debate between supporters of even-year elections for localities and opponents.
SB 5723 states that an ordinance or charter amendment “must be adopted by January 15th of an odd-numbered year for the city to begin transition under (b) of this subsection in that calendar year.” If Seattle voters approved a charter amendment to switch the city’s election timing in November of 2024, the city would be able to notify King County Elections of its decision by the January 15th, 2025 deadline, thereby allowing the transition to begin in 2025.
Step Three: Seattle would need to hold one final set of elections in odd-numbered years
The final step in the process would be to hold elections for bridge terms in November of 2025 and November of 2027. Seattle would elect a mayor, city attorney, and two at-large city council positions to three-year terms in 2025. These positions would then be next contested in 2028, a presidential year. Seattle would likewise elect seven district-based city council positions to three-year terms in 2027; these positions would then be next contested in 2030, a midterm year.
No change needed for Seattle’s municipal court judges
Seattle already elects its municipal court judges in even-numbered years, so it will not be necessary to change the timing for those positions. (As currently written, SB 5723 actually prohibits cities and towns from changing the timing of elections for municipal judgeships.)
Timeframe and key dates
- January 8th, 2024: Legislature convenes for even year short session
- March 7th, 2024: Last possible day of 2024 legislative session
- June 6th, 2024: Effective date of SB 5723 if passed and signed into law
- August 6th, 2024: Deadline for Seattle to submit a charter amendment to the November 2024 general election ballot
- November 5th, 2024: General Election Day
- January 15th, 2025: Deadline for Seattle to notify King County that it will be electing its officers to bridge terms beginning in 2025, to achieve a switch to even year timing
King County Charter Amendment 1 shows voters are hungry for even-year elections
Last year, our charter amendment to change the timing of elections for 12 county positions (Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and nine County Council seats) passed with the support of nearly seven out of 10 voters. If you look at the precinct-level final election results, you can see the amendment was very popular in Seattle – it passed with support from every single neighborhood in the city. Our team believes a charter amendment to move the city’s elections to even-numbered years would be very favorably received by Seattle voters.
But before Seattle can change its charter, the Legislature must act. If you’re interested in helping get Senate Bill 5723 passed in 2024, please join the NPI mailing list so we can keep you apprised of opportunities to support this vital electoral reform legislation.
Andrew Villeneuve is the founder of the Northwest Progressive Institute and its sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He serves in leadership roles in both organizations. NPI, founded in 2003, has an advocacy focus, powered by research, whereas NPF, formed in 2018, has an educational focus. Andrew has worked for over two decades to advance progressive causes as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. His favorite leisure activities are traveling, hiking, and piloting.