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Shift to even-year local elections proposed to boost voter turnout

Low turnouts for local elections are leading some to advocate for moving those contests to even numbered years alongside national races.

"Young people are part of the communities that are being left behind," said Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle. She is a co-sponsor of a bill in this year's legislative session to move elections to even-numbered years. She is also the youngest legislator in Washington and said this issue is very personal to her.

"This issue is about making sure that we have the best democracy we can possibly have and hearing the voices of absolutely everyone," Farivar said.

Currently, in even numbered years, federal, state, and county offices and state or local ballot measures are on the November ballot. In odd numbered years, state ballot measures, and most local government elections for cities, towns, and special purpose districts are decided.

Zoltan Hajnal, UCSD Professor of Political Science, self-proclaimed as the "world's foremost expert on election times," studied this topic for decades.

"Every study that has looked at this... has found that moving to even-year elections doubles or more than doubles voter turnout," Hajnal said.

Hajinal asserts this increase in voter turnout increases youth share of the vote by over 20 percentage points and this creates a more racially diverse voting population.

Chris Roberts, Mayor of the City of Shoreline, supports the bill. He points to a significant drop in voter turnout from 67% to 34% from 2022 to 2023.

Oregon is among the 26 U.S. states that either permit or mandate city elections to coincide with statewide elections, resulting in double the voter turnout compared to Washington cities, according to Alan Durning from Sightline Institute, an organization devoted to policies that encourage diversity, equity and inclusion.

Critics, however, argue that moving elections to federal election years would cause local elections to get lost in the noise of bigger campaigns.

"I was at the very bottom of the ballot," Rep. Sam Low R-Lake Stevens said, reflecting on his 2016 county council race and the difficulty he faced in advertising amidst concurrent presidential and state office elections.

Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, and Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, argue an off-year election can identify structural weaknesses in your election process and the state is able to justify full-time employees.

Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-Sea-Tac, acknowledges there are drawbacks, but asserts they cannot be the reason why this bill does not pass. "The people of Washington state have been very clear that even-numbered election cycles are something that they want," she says.

Andrew Villeneuve, from Northwest Progressive Institute, testified in favor of the bill, noting: "This is the only electoral reform available that can as much as double turnout as well as greatly diversifying it."

In polling Villenueve has found a ratio of 2-1 support in favor of even-year elections for localities.

Why has the seemingly impactful shift to even-numbered years for elections, a potential key to boosting voter turnout, been a long time coming?

"The Secretary of State staffer said this is a 50-year tradition. Why would you change it?" Gregerson asked. "I've been thinking about that a lot and trying to figure out, what does that mean? And it just really is pushing against change, right?"

Sponsors of the bill are primarily Democrats, but Gregerson said this is not a partisan issue. Conservative states like Montana, Arizona and Idaho have successfully shifted to even-numbered years.

HB 1932, if passed, mandates specific areas to transition to even-year elections if voter turnout remains below 40% for four consecutive odd-year general elections, starting from the 2025 general election.