OLYMPIA – Most Washington voters have some kind of election every November. Changing that so that most elections are held in even-numbered years could boost participation and save local governments some money, supporters told a House committee Wednesday.
But it could also be considered an unconstitutional abridgment of the public’s right to control their “oppressive Legislature” with initiatives and referenda, opponents said.
The proposal, sponsored by House State Government Committee Chairwoman Mia Gregerson, would move most municipal elections to even years, when regular federal and state races generate more voter interest and higher turnout.
Zoltan Hajnal, a political science professor at University of California San Diego, said studies show turnout for odd-year elections is often lower for certain groups, including voters with less education, persons of color and those from lower-income groups. Voters in even-numbered years usually reflect more closely the overall population.
But the proposal drew criticism from Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the head of state elections, as well as civic activists. Washington’s turnout rate is usually among the top five states in the country, even in odd-year elections, Wyman said, and the bill would mean that initiative supporters would collect signatures in an odd-numbered year, but it wouldn’t show up on the ballot until the next year.
“I’m afraid this could cause voter confusion,” she said.
Plus, the ballots in even-numbered years would get longer, causing some voters to skip races down the ballot.
Several opponents quoted from the state constitution’s provisions that give voters the right to initiate or repeal legislation, and accused Gregerson and the bill’s co-sponsors of trying to silence them. Linda Yang, who was part of last year’s effort to repeal the state’s new affirmative action law through Referendum 88, said that odd-year effort allowed people “to take the power back” from the Legislature.
Michelle Darnell, who described herself as a paralegal and political activist, said people are dissatisfied with their “oppressive Legislature” and this bill won’t help that.
“We the people are watching and we will remember on Election Day,” she said.
Tim Eyman, who makes his living sponsoring initiatives, sarcastically said he was thankful the bill doesn’t propose getting rid of all elections. But odd-numbered years are when the Legislature has its longer session and passes its two-year budgets for operating expenses, transportation and construction projects, he said.
“Odd years are when you do the most mischief,” Eyman said. “The more time you’re down here, the scarier it gets.”
But Andrew Villeneuve, of the Northwest Progressive Institute, said limiting statewide elections to even years doesn’t run afoul of the original intent of the initiative process. From the time initiative and referendum rights were put into the constitution in the early 1900s until 1973, the state only held elections in even-numbered years, he said.
Ballot measures like Referendum 88 didn’t turn down affirmative action by an absolute majority, Villeneuve said. It turned down the law by a slim majority of the minority of voters who cast ballots.
Legislators can’t pass laws by a majority of the members who are on the floor to vote, he said. They need an absolute majority of the total members in the House or Senate.
The committee is tentatively scheduled to vote on the bill next week.
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