Election signs line a section of Mukilteo Blvd. in Everett. (Sue Misao / Everett Herald)

Editorial: Switch of local elections may be premature

Adding local elections to even-year ballots could boost participation but election officials have concerns.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If voters in Washington state won’t turn out for local elections — get their marked ballots in the mail or in a drop box — should elections be moved to when they do?

That’s the question behind a proposal in the state Legislature that would allow cities and other special districts to move their elections from odd years — when they are usually the only races on the ballot — to even years, when interest in national and state races and issues typically draws much higher voter participation.

How much more participation?

Last year’s elections in November, spell out the difference between odd and even election years.

Of the 512,546 registered voters in Snohomish County, only 185,738 — 36.24 percent — returned ballots for races in city, county, school, port, fire and other districts in the Nov. 7 election, similar to the 36 percent turnout statewide. Odd-year turnout in the county was similar in 2021 at 36 percent, but higher in 2019 at 43 percent. But even 2019’s numbers don’t come close to recent even-year elections; Snohomish County turnout was at 63 percent in 2022 and 86 percent for the 2020 presidential election year.

House Bill 1932, which has passed the House and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate’s Government and Elections Committee on Friday, would give cities, school districts and other special districts the option to move their elections to even years, joining ballots when interest in voting is higher with state and national elections. Companion legislation in the Senate did not advance past a key deadline for the 60-day session that has reached its halfway mark.

Counties currently have the option to switch to even years, but Snohomish and Whatcom counties have thus far elected to stay on the odd-year schedule, a law for local elections that has been in effect for about 60 years.

Under the legislation, cities, towns and other districts 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 issue also could be put before local voters. Unlike an earlier Senate version, the switch is not irrevocable, but would require some positions to have their terms shortened by a year to align with the new election schedule.

Among those backing the switch is the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based public policy organization that published a report last year that found that odd-year elections were “crushing” voter turnout for city and town councils, school boards and others. Statewide, the report found, the odd-year 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.

But there are concerns that the switch might work against participation in local elections. While the 52-45 vote on the House floor last week was largely along partisan lines, several Democrats joined almost all Republicans in voting against passage. Those opposed cited concerns that a switch could actually discourage voter participation in local elections.

Also advising against the switch is another prominent Democrat, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, whose chief responsibility is carrying out the state’s election laws.

For Hobbs, it’s about the length of the ballot that would result from adding local races to a long list of positions already on the ballot for the state Legislature, state offices, initiatives, referendums, races in Congress and — every four years — the U.S. president, he said in an interview prior to the legislative session.

“By the time you get to your city council or school board or PUD, you’re talking about having this on the back page,” of a ballot, Hobbs said, worried that some voters might get halfway through a ballot and lose interest.

“Voting should be a fun civic duty, not a chore that takes an hour,” he said.

Additionally, there’s concern regarding how much voter information on various candidates and issues — and the willingness to absorb that information — will be available with an expanded ballot. Hobbs’ deputy, Randy Bolerjack, noting the shrinkage of the local media landscape, said adding races to the even-year ballot could exacerbate the lack of election information, especially for local elections.

“There isn’t enough media capacity to do that,” Bolerjack said.

As well, there are concerns for what the switch might add to costs for counties to run elections, adding to the length of voters guides and in staff time in processing of ballots.

County Auditor Garth Fell, whose responsibilities include running the county’s elections supports the goal of increasing participation in local elections, but says the issue may not have gotten enough study, especially during a short 60-day legislative session.

“What would it do,” he asked, “for the elections remaining in odd years? And what would it mean for elections office staffing and training?”

As well, he has concerns if the length of the ballot required more than one page, perhaps confusing voters and complicating ballot processing for county election staff.

Those concerns could be overcome with new procedures, he said, but a new law that allows the switch without those answers is premature.

The concerns are legitimate, but if voter turnout already is hovering around a third of registered voters for odd-year elections, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that only a similar third will bother completing their ballots in an even-year, despite a ballot’s length.

For whatever reason, the message to nearly two-thirds of registered voters that local elections are as important and worthy of consideration as state and national elections hasn’t impressed those voters enough to convince them to return ballots in odd years. Maybe putting those races on the same ballot they are already returning could make a difference.

There is merit in the idea. Yet while not all cities and districts are likely to move to make the switch, those cities and districts interested in a switch will also not want to make a change without knowing more about how this will work and what results are expected.

Until there are more certain answers about how to proceed, lawmakers should elect to put off a change.

Speaking of local elections: Voters throughout the county will need to return ballots today, either by mail or voter drop box for a special election.

Voters in Marysville are weighing in on renewal of a sales tax for the city’s transportation benefit district; and voters in the Arlington, Sultan, Edmonds, Stanwood-Camano and Lakewood school districts are considering measures for levies, bonds or both for operations, capital needs and school construction; and voters in Fire District 22 are considering a levy to support fire protection and emergency medical services needs.

For more information on the elections and a list of drop-box locations, go to tinyurl.com/SnoCoElex24.

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