Q: What would the proposed amendment do? How would it work?
A: This amendment would change the plan of government for King County, known as the charter, to specify that regular elections for the positions of Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and County Council be held in even-numbered years. Currently, these positions are filled in odd-numbered years. The amendment would shift them to even-numbered years by providing that the next set of terms for each office would be for three years instead of four. Thereafter, the terms would be for four years as they are today.
Q: What is the timeframe for this proposed change?
A: If voters ratify King County Charter Amendment 1 this autumn, the transition would commence in 2023 with that year’s elections. It would take two cycles to complete:
- In 2023, candidates running for the positions of County Council (Districts #2, #4, #6, and #8) and Elections Director would be elected to three-year terms instead of four-year terms, which would result in those positions next being contested in an even-numbered year (2026) for four year terms.
- In 2025, the positions of Executive, Assessor, and County Council (Districts #1, #3, #5, #7, and #9) would be elected to three-year terms instead of four-year terms, which would result in those positions next being contested in an even-numbered year (2028) for four year terms.
Q: What about the office of Prosecuting Attorney?
A: We already regularly elect our King County Prosecuting Attorney in even-numbered years (specifically, midterm cycles) and have been doing so for a long time. No change is needed. The position is on the current midterm ballot.
Q: And what about our Superior Court positions?
A: Those are also already regularly elected in even-numbered years (specifically, presidential cycles). No realignment is needed.
Q: Why make this change?
A: To strengthen our democracy! By changing when we regularly elect our executive and legislative county positions, we will significantly increase the size and diversity of the electorate that chooses our county’s future leaders, and address voter fatigue. King County is a very large jurisdiction, with 2.2 million residents and a multi-billion dollar budget. County officials make many critically important public safety, land use, and transportation decisions that affect all of us. Our county leaders ought to be chosen by the same broader electorate that chooses our legislators, our United States senators and representatives, and our statewide elected officials.
Q: Will moving to even years really make that much of a difference in terms of participation?
A: Absolutely! If we look at electoral turnout, we can see that when county-level items are voted on in either midterm or presidential years, there’s a lot more participation, including from youth, working class voters, voters of color, and renters.
If King County had most recently elected its Executive in 2020 instead of 2021, hundreds of thousands more voters would have weighed in. We can infer this because in 2020, 1.1 million votes were cast on each of a set of seven charter amendments submitted by the county to voters. That’s approximately double the number of voters who chose between Dow Constantine and Joe Nguyen in the fall of 2021.
King County Executive, 2021
Total votes for Executive: 572,911
Countywide turnout: 43.41% (607,869 ballots counted)
King County charter amendments, 2020
Total average votes for and against seven charter amendments: 1,125,806
Countywide turnout: 85.35% (1,220,062 ballots counted)
As we can see, one year makes a huge difference.
Q: Wouldn’t making this change lengthen the ballot in even numbered years?
A: There would be at most three additional items on the ballot in any one year as a result of this amendment’s implementation. Voters in King County and elsewhere in Washington State have sent a clear message for more than a decade: they’d rather have fewer elections with longer ballots than more elections with shorter ballots. We can see from looking at the data from 2020 that most King County voters made selections on the seven charter amendments that the Council sent them. Most voters did not skip those measures. Rather, they voted downballot and participated in making critically important decisions about King County’s plan of government in a cycle where there was a lot going on at the federal and state levels.
Q: So it’s true that downballot voting in even-numbered years in King County consistently exceeds top of the ticket voting in odd-numbered years?
Q: What about city level races, school board races, port races, and so on?
A: The timing of elections at other local levels is prescribed by state law, not the King County Charter, so changes to other levels would need to be authorized by the Legislature, which is not currently scheduled to meet again until 2023. However, as a county, King County is free under existing state law to propose a charter change concerning its own offices without needing to go through the Legislature. Accordingly, this amendment only concerns the twelve county positions we’re currently electing in odd-numbered years.
Q: Wouldn’t making this change put King County out of sync with other counties in Washington?
A: Nope! In fact, making this change will do the opposite: it will align King County’s regularly scheduled elections with those of the vast majority of our state’s other thirty-nine counties. It’s actually the norm in Washington State for county positions to be filled in midterm or presidential cycles. There are only a few charter counties that currently do their electing in odd-numbered years. King County is one. Snohomish County and Whatcom County are others. Pierce County, the state’s second largest county, is a charter county, but it holds its county elections in even-numbered years like the state’s code counties do. Consequently, Pierce County sees better turnout in its county-level elections than King County does.
Q: What is the difference between a charter county and a code county?
A: Charter counties have their own plans of government, whereas code counties use the county government framework provided by the state. Here’s a more detailed description from the Municipal Research Services Center:
Article 11, section 5 of the Washington Constitution makes the commission form the standard form of county government throughout the state for counties that do not adopt a home rule charter and sets forth, in general terms, the governmental structure that all commission counties must have. Of Washington’s 39 counties, 32 “noncharter” counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law.
The seven charter counties are
- King (as of 1969)
- Snohomish (as of 1980)
- Pierce (as of 1981)
- Whatcom (as of 1979)
- Clallam (as of 1977)
- Clark (as of 2015)
- San Juan (as of 2006)
Every other county is currently a “code” county, with no charter in place. Again, all code counties regularly elect their positions in even numbered years, and so do most of the charter counties. Unlike code counties, charter counties have the freedom to choose their timing.
Q: Wouldn’t adopting this change make it harder for county level candidates to compete for attention in presidential or midterm years, or obtain earned media coverage?
A: No. It’s more likely to become easier due to the coattails effect. That’s a bit of political jargon that Safire’s Political Dictionary defines as: “political carrying power, the ability to attract and hold support, not only for oneself but for other members of a ticket; for a weak candidate on a ticket, somebody to grimly hang onto.” In this context, the coattails effect or “political carrying power” is office or jurisdiction related as opposed to candidate or party related.
To put it another way: History has shown that local offices (county, city, port, school board, etc.) simply don’t attract the level of interest from the mass media or the public that state and federal offices do, regardless of how strong the field of candidates is, or how competitive the races are. When local offices stand on their own in an odd-numbered, “local” year, coverage and voter interest tends to be muted. Sometimes, it’s downright anemic.
But by sharing a ballot with higher profile state and federal offices, local contests can vie more effectively for attention and media coverage. That’s good for candidates, good for voters, and good for democracy. The local offices effectively ride on the coattails of the state and federal offices, benefiting from the excitement and energy surrounding the elections for those positions.
A local candidate running in an even-numbered year and sharing the ballot doesn’t have the problem of being told that “off years don’t matter” by disengaged voters at the doors. Local candidates will face less apathy, indifference, and ambivalence if they get to run alongside state and federal candidates in even-numbered years.
Q: Won’t it cost more for local candidates to get their message out if they have to share ballots with state and federal candidates?
A: Broadcast ads (television and radio) will probably cost more; campaigns’ return on direct mail and digital investments would be less impacted. Those ramifications have to be considered alongside the advantages. New doors will open for our county-level candidates. For example, thanks to the coattails effect, they’ll be able to make campaign appearances at events like party caucuses and conventions that typically aren’t held in odd-numbered years, and they’ll benefit from increased political coverage by media outlets. And, to the extent permitted by law, they’ll be able to jointly fundraise as well as canvass with state and federal candidates.
Q: Have political scientists done any research on election timing and shifting to even-numbered years?
A: They have, and the academic literature strongly supports making this change. If you are interested in doing some reading, here are several papers you can check out:
- Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in Mayoral Elections
- Who Votes: City Election Timing and Voter Composition
- Off-Cycle and Out of Sync: How Election Timing Influences Political Representation
This 2018 guest essay by Zoltan L. Hajnal, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, is also worth reading.
“The logic is clear,” Hajnal writes. “When local elections are not held on the first Tuesday of November with other statewide and national contests, local voters need to learn the date of their local election, find their local election polling place and make a specific trip to the polls just to vote on local contests. That is a lot of extra work just to vote for a school board contest or a special district measure. By moving those elections to coincide with national elections, though, we make local voting essentially costless. Citizens who are already voting for higher level offices need only check off a few more boxes further down the ballot.”
In King County, we have long had vote-at-home. Voters do not need to go to a polling place to cast a ballot. Yet even though ballots come right to our homes, with three weeks are provided to vote and prepaid postage for those who wish to return a ballot through the mail, most King County voters aren’t turning out in odd-numbered years. We’ve lowered barriers to voting and improved access, but we have not yet addressed election fatigue by simplifying our elections. It’s time we did so. This charter amendment will be a great first step in the direction we need to go.