Wait, did I just get another ballot in the mail?
Didn’t we just do this in November? And then the Sawant thing in December? What’s this new one about?
Washington schedules at least four elections every year (five in presidential years).
This new one is, mostly, for school funding. Fourteen King County cities or school districts, including Seattle, have propositions on the ballot asking voters for supplemental funding.
This is the February special election. There’s also the opportunity for another special election in April. Then there’s the primary in August. And the general election in November. Every year.
If it seems like a lot, well, there used to be even more.
Up until 2009, there was the opportunity for a whopping six elections per year, every year, including special elections in February, March, April and May. The March and May special elections were nixed by the Legislature in 2009, after complaints from county election officials, who noted that sometimes they were running two different elections at the same time.
But wait. We’re still running two elections at the same time.
In King County, there are also elections currently ongoing for the King Conservation District, a position with no regulatory powers that works with landowners on environmental projects. Through a quirk in state law, the conservation district has to run its own elections. They’ve historically drawn voter turnout between 1% and 3% and the elections are now held online.
Back in 2009, when the law was changed, officials argued that having so many elections confused voters, was a waste of limited resources and left no time for other tasks like maintaining voter rolls.
There are now a couple pushes to, again, limit the number of elections that voters — depending on your point of view — are subjected to, or have the privilege of participating in.
A more high-profile proposal would make more significant changes.
House Bill 1727 would get rid of the general election in all odd-numbered years. That would mean the elections for local officials — mayors, county executives, city and county council members — would be held at the same time, on the same ballots, as legislative and congressional elections.
None of the proposals, however, would affect the February ballots currently in front of voters. School districts and other special taxing districts can generally choose when they want to send proposals to voters.
School districts have traditionally done so in February, when their elections are almost guaranteed to attract fewer voters than higher profile ones just a few months prior in November.
“I can’t find a definitive reason why the levies are on the February ballot,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools, which has two propositions on the ballot, seeking funding for special education, English learner programs, and technology and facility upgrades. “At this point, ‘tradition’ is as reasonable an answer as any.”
Jamal Raad, director of the climate group Evergreen Action and a former spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, said it was “absurd” to hold the votes in February.
“Turnout will be abysmal,” Raad wrote on Twitter. “This is dumb.”
Elections officials said it was the district’s decision.
Stuart Holmes, acting elections director for Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, speculated that school districts might choose February so they can get assurances on their budgets earlier in the year.
King County Elections Director Julie Wise also mentioned budget cycles as a possible reason for the February elections.
But she also noted that turnout is typically much lower in February. November elections typically garner about 35% to 50% of voters in odd-numbered years and 70% to 85% of voters in even-numbered years. February elections tend to have turnout percentages in the 20s and 30s.
“Certainly, I think that voter turnout weighs into conversations around when to put a ballot measure before voters,” Wise said. “I think there’s some strategic planning behind those efforts in some circumstances, maybe not all.”
Special taxing districts, in other words, often hold their elections in February or April because that’s when they think they’re more likely to win.
Wise is in favor of looking at ways to reduce the number of elections held each year.
“When we look at the cost of an election, when we look at the turnout of an election, I think there’s some good arguments there to look at less elections is more,” she said. “We should definitely be thinking around how do we increase turnout? How do we keep people engaged in elections?”
Odd-year elections no more?
Going back to 2010, voter turnout statewide in odd-numbered general elections has averaged 43%. In even-numbered years, which feature congressional, gubernatorial and presidential elections, turnout has averaged 74%.
That means local officials like mayors and city council members get elected by a much smaller share of the voting base than officials like state representatives, senators and governors.
Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it’s about making it easier for voters, holding elections at times when the most voters are paying attention.
“If we want a more participating democracy, if we want more voices of all backgrounds, all types, making decisions, then we want to put it into a place and a space where people are expecting to vote,” Gregerson said.
She also touted it as a cost-saving move. King County, for instance, spends about $11 million a year to conduct its primary and general elections. If odd-year elections were nixed, some of those costs would surely migrate to even years in the form of multipage ballots and pricier postage, but not all of them.
Most states have local elections in odd-numbered years. For instance, at least 41 states had at least one city with a mayoral election in 2021, according to a list compiled by the United States Conference of Mayors.
Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor, called nixing odd-year elections “the single most important thing you could do to increase voting participation in local elections.”
“Odd-year elections suppress the vote of those people we want to hear from,” McGinn said.
The bill wouldn’t just affect local elections. Statewide initiatives and referendums would also no longer be up for a vote in odd-numbered years. Conservative activists have found more success recently in odd-numbered years, passing measures to ban affirmative action and to reduce car tab taxes.
The Legislature, they said, makes laws in odd-numbered years too, so why should citizens be limited to just even-numbered years?
“It doesn’t benefit me as a voter, it doesn’t benefit me as a taxpayer, in fact it really looks to me like you all are just trying to game the system again,” said Jeff Pack, of Washington Citizens Against Unfair Taxes.
Regardless, if you’re one of the 1.2 million King County voters who lives in a district that elected to hold elections this February, your ballot is due a week from Tuesday.