A young voter wears a sticker on their sweater that reads "I VOTED," with an American flag slightly visible in the background

To Boost Voter Turnout, King County Proposal Would Move Elections to Even Years

by Ben Adlin

The King County Council is expected to vote next week on a plan that would move County elections to even-numbered years, a change aimed at increasing overall voter turnout. Supporters say the shift could boost participation, particularly among underrepresented groups, such as young people and Communities of Color. 

The proposal, from Democratic Council Chair Claudia Balducci, would amend King County’s charter so that elections for County offices happen at the same time as state and national elections, which typically see higher participation. Since 2010, voter turnout in King County has averaged 77% in even-numbered years and just 47% in odd-numbered years.

A graph showing Historical King County Voter Turnout in General Elections, with even years showing a larger turnout than odd years

Councilmembers are scheduled to vote Wednesday, June 15, on whether to put the proposal on November’s ballot. A majority of County voters would need to approve the amendment for the change to take effect. If approved, the shift would take place beginning in 2026, with all countywide elections being held in even-numbered years by 2028.

City and other local elections, many of which are currently held in odd-numbered years, would not be impacted by the change.

The proposal was brought to Balducci by the Northwest Progressive Institute, one of a number of local advocacy groups that support the move to even-year elections. Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Girmay Zahilay, both Democrats, have also co-sponsored the legislation.

During a June 1 meeting of the full council, nearly all who spoke during public comment said they supported the change. Shifting County elections to even years, they said, would mean not only higher turnout but also better representation of King County’s demographic makeup.

“Typically, odd-year elections have about 40% less turnout than even-year elections, and those who do vote tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than the electorate,” said Lev Elson-Schwab, advocacy chair for the League of Women Voters of Seattle–King County. “By supporting this charter amendment, which calls for even-year elections for King County officials, we can increase and diversify turnout.”

Zoltan Hajnal, a politics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies how disadvantaged groups are represented in elections, told councilmembers that moving to even-year elections “makes the vote much more representative of the population.”

“Younger voters, often the group least likely to be involved in democracy, have a much bigger say in even years. Their turnout grows from a paltry 18% in odd-year local contests in Washington to a much more impressive 50% in even years,” Hajnal said. “The same move tends to increase the share of voters for racial and ethnic minorities, the share of voters who are working class, and the share of voters who are liberal and Democratic.”

Other commenters in favor of the proposal included speakers from Sightline Institute, More Equitable Democracy, Somos Mujeres Latinas, and King County Democrats.

“Usually, it’s very hard to improve voter turnout. People who work on this are thrilled when outreach or policy changes improve turnout by two or three percentage points,” said Jay Lee, a research associate at Sightline. 

“This simple change can do more for increasing voter turnout than dozens of other potential voter-turnout solutions combined,” Lee added. “The benefits to public input, equity, voting rights, and trust in government can’t be ignored.”

Opponents of the change, however — such as Republican Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who has called the legislation “controversial” and “wrong for King County” — say a move to even-year elections would lead to longer ballots and less emphasis on local issues.

“Asking voters to consider local and national elections in the same year is completely misguided and would surely allow the drama and partisanship of national politics to drown out the local, nuts-and-bolts issues that are integral to our daily lives, such as homelessness, transportation, and crime,” he said.

Dunn has also warned that the change could also make it harder for challengers to run for office by increasing the cost of campaigns. Candidates for County positions would have to spend money on TV and radio ads alongside national campaigns, when air time is more expensive.

Dunn, whose District 9 includes most of the county’s southeast quadrant, from Bellevue to Enumclaw, is one of two Republicans on the nine-member council. Increasing voter turnout among more Democratic-leaning voters, as many proponents of the change say it would do, could hurt Dunn and other County GOP candidates at the polls.

Backers of the proposal pushed back against Dunn’s criticisms during public comment last week. Kathy Sakahara, legislative director for the Northwest Progressive Institute, said it’s not clear from available evidence that slightly longer ballots would lead to voters failing to complete their ballots.

“But even if it holds true,” Sakahara told councilmembers, “the data from your own staff show that the total number of people voting in County races will actually go up because of the higher turnout.”

As for the concern that moving County elections to the same ballot as State and national elections would detract from local issues, Sakahara replied: “I’m sorry, but that is exactly the problem. There isn’t sufficient attention among voters now. They are not paying attention to you, which is why they are not turning out in your elections. Many, we hear, don’t even know there is an election in odd years.”

Shifting County elections to even years would also occasionally impact the cost of administering elections at both County and City levels. That’s because who pays election costs depends on what’s on the ballot.

Generally, the effect on cost would be minimal. County Council staff studied 26 elections since 2009 and found that if King County had held even-year elections, it would have made no fiscal impact on 21 of the elections. In three cases, the change would have resulted in decreased costs to the County but increased costs to local jurisdictions. In two other elections, the change would have increased costs to the County but saved money for cities and other local districts.

If the County Council approves the proposal and it’s approved by voters in November, councilmembers would see their four-year terms temporarily cut short by a year as elections move to even years. After the shift, councilmembers would again serve four-year terms.

The proposal is one of a number of voting reforms offered in recent years. Councilmember Zahilay last year sponsored legislation that would have shifted County elections to ranked-choice voting, in which each voter ranks candidates based on preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and every voter who chose that candidate as their first choice has their second-choice vote counted instead. While that effort fell short last year, advocates at the State and County levels are still eyeing the reform.

In Seattle, meanwhile, advocates are working to qualify a citizen initiative for the ballot that would change the City’s voting method to so-called approval voting, where voters could cast their ballots for as many candidates as they like in a primary race. The two candidates with the most votes would then proceed to a general election.

Supporters say approval voting could lead to less polarization in politics, with more broadly appealing candidates faring better. The proposal is being funded largely by a nonpartisan California think tank and men who made money in the tech industry.

Other voting rights advocates, such as the League of Women Voters of Seattle–King County, say Seattle should skip approval voting and instead pursue ranked-choice voting. “It’s not really so much that we hate approval voting,” Heather Kelly, the group’s president, told The Stranger in March, “but we need to have really high expectations for our election systems, and so it’s really about advocating for the most equitable model we can implement.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured image by Made360/Shutterstock.com.

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