The Snohomish County Auditor’s Office is one of many locations where election ballots can be dropped off during elections. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

The Snohomish County Auditor’s Office is one of many locations where election ballots can be dropped off during elections. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Let cities make switch to even-year elections

Poor voter turnout in odd-numbered years calls for a switch to even-year elections for more races.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Try as they might, candidates, the League of Women Voters, election advocates and this editorial board could only convince about a third of Snohomish County voters to participate in the Nov. 7 election.

If you didn’t vote, that’s the election that determined who will serve as mayors and as county officials and who will serve on city councils, the county council, school boards and more; the local government offices that, as we noted last week, “often have more direct impact on the decisions related to daily life in your community than state and national races.”

Not that you would recognize that significance by the nearly two-thirds of registered voters who didn’t participate.

While a few straggling mailed ballots remain to be counted, as of Saturday, about 183,446 of Snohomish County’s 512,974 registered votes — 35.8 percent — voted in the Nov. 7 election. For an off-year election — one occurring outside of even years when state and national races are on the ballot — that squares with recent turnout of nearly 36 percent in 2021 and 43 percent in 2019. Those figures pale next to recent even-year elections, such as the 2020 presidential-year election with 86 percent turnout and 2022’s 63 percent of voters returning ballots in the county.

Statewide, turnout was even lower, just shy of 34 percent as of Monday morning.

Voting in Washington state isn’t as much of a chore as it is for some in other states, who have to stand in line at polling places, or specifically request absentee ballots. Ballots, sent to registered voters automatically, allow us time to vote at home and at our convenience, to be returned by mail or dropped off at ballot boxes. We can register to vote up until the day of the election. We don’t even have to put a stamp on ballots to mail them.

Still, for local elections, only a third of us bother?

Rather than fight, maybe we ought to switch; election years, that is.

Noting this year’s low turnout, two Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, and Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, say they will introduce legislation to allow cities and towns to change their election years from odd-numbered years to even-year elections.

“Our state has not experienced over 50 percent turnout in odd-year elections in over a decade,” Valdez and Farivar said in a news release last week.

Counties currently have this option; King County voters last November approved a charter amendment with nearly 70 percent support that moves its elections for county executive, assessor, elections director and county council members to even-year elections. Those changes are now under way.

King County’s switch leaves Snohomish and Whatcom counties as the only counties among the state’s 39 that hold their county office elections in odd-numbered years.

In the Senate, Valdez plans to reintroduce in the coming legislative session, Senate Bill 5723, which was considered this year but did not advance beyond a committee hearing. Cities and towns could make the switch by holding two public hearings 30 days apart, then approving an ordinance at least 30 days after the second public hearing. The switch, however, would be irrevocable, and the transition to even-year elections would require that offices would have have their terms shortened by a year once to accommodate the switch.

As written, the legislation does not address elections for school districts, port districts and similar positions. The legislation also exempts judicial elections from the switch.

The switch could significantly increase voter participation in city and town elections, however, according to a recent report by the Sightline Institute, a nonpartisan advocacy organization.

Every city and town, the report says, suffers from a voter-turnout penalty because of a 60-year-old state law that relegates municipal elections to odd-numbered years. Statewide, the penalty amounts to more than 578,000 missing voters in those local elections. Its research shows that the benefits of more voters in even-numbered years are not associated with partisan affiliation, city size or other demographic traits.

“Consolidating local with federal elections, a growing trend in U.S. cities, is immensely popular with voters of every political stripe, enhances the representativeness of the local electorate, holds local leaders more accountable to local values and policy preferences, and can save millions of dollars of public funds,” wrote Alan Durning, executive director for Sightline.

That the legislation would leave the decision to each municipality is key; because it concerns the outcomes of local elections, it is a decision that should be made at the local level and done so with the knowledge and consent of each city’s residents.

As for Snohomish County also making the switch, we’ll make the case that the decision should ultimately be left to county voters as it was in King County, and only put to them after enough local municipalities have made that change to represent a specified percentage of the county’s registered voters. Were Snohomish County to move its elections to even-numbered years on its own, that move could potentially drive down turnout for municipal elections to even lower levels.

When the state law that relegated city elections to odd-numbered years was adopted in 1963, voters didn’t get a say in that decision. That choice should now be restored to each city’s decision makers, advised by each city’s residents.

“Voters are telling us with their actions that they prefer voting in even-year elections, and we need to listen to them,” Valdez and Farivar said in the release. “The more voices that are heard in elections, the stronger democracy we will have.”

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