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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Consolidating elections in even years would undermine, not empower, voters

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Mail-in ballots were supposed to increase voter turnout. They have not. Free postage and more drop boxes were supposed to increase voter turnout. They did not. Making it easier wasn’t the solution. Now House Bill 2529 proposes the latest idea to nudge apathetic voters to get involved.

HB 2529 proposes to increase voter turnout by eliminating most elections in odd-numbered years and cramming all statewide, legislative, county, municipal and district elections onto a single ballot in even-numbered years. It would apply not only to mayors, city councils, fire district commissioners, school board members and other local offices, but also to the advisory votes, initiatives and referendums intended to provide a check on the Legislature.

According to the expert witness brought in by the bill’s sponsor, even-year only elections increase the liberal and Democratic vote share by 4%. These demographics typically vote at lower rates in off-year elections. According to Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, even-year only elections will provide an electorate that better reflects the community by increasing participation.

The bill is on a fast pace for approval. Probably just a coincidence it politically benefits the party that controls the Legislature. Yeah, right.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman testified in opposition to HB 2539 before the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations on Wednesday. Wyman is in charge of elections for the state and has a depth of experience in local elections in Thurston County, first as elections director and then serving as county auditor from 2001 to 2013.

Washington is already in the top five nationally for voter turnout. Combining the sheer number of state measures with local races creates logistical challenges. Wyman reported last year counties were hard-pressed to get everything onto a single ballot. And that was an odd-numbered year with no statewide candidates.

Sharon Swanson, of the Association of Washington Cities, and Mike Hoover, of the Washington State Association of Counties, testified with concerns on the prospect of voter fatigue on the back side of a long ballot. Wyman also warned the committee not to confuse increasing voter turnout with better voter participation. The number of undervotes – that is, the number of ballot measures and races left blank – increases with the length of the ballot.

There would still be special elections for a few types of local issues, such as school or municipal bond issues and levies. Hoover testified to his organization’s concerns with short odd-numbered year ballots suppressing voter participation in critical local tax issues.

Wyman and others also testified a two-year cycle for statewide issues reduces voter access to the constitutional process of initiative and referendum, intended to provide a check on the Legislature. Linda Yang, from Washington Asians for Equality, hinted at a court challenge if HB 2529 passes. Her organization led the fight to put Referendum 88 on the ballot and reject the Legislature’s actions to overturn the Washington Civil Rights Act in the final weekend of the 2019 session.

Andrew Villeneuve, of the Northwest Progressive Institute, testified in support of HB 2529. He took issue with saying Initiative 976, which capped the cost of car tabs at $30,passed with 53% support, since a majority of voters statewide chose not to participate at all. By not participating, 45% of state voters voted “I don’t care,” and I-976 received active support from less than 25% of all registered voters to win.

On the other hand, even-year elections do not guarantee winning initiatives earn support from 50% of all registered voters. In 2016, only two out of six met that more exacting standard and none of the four initiatives on the ballot in 2018 did so. Pretty sure Villeneuve isn’t going to argue we should ignore the results of the vote on Initiative 1433, which raised the minimum wage, or Initiative 1639, which imposed more regulations on firearms.

And of course Tim Eyman was there to testify regarding the impact on the initiative process.

“Legislative accountability is even more important in the odd years,” said Eyman, pointing to the state budget and the long session.

For Yang, it’s a matter of fairness as well as accountability: “If the Legislature does not want the people to exercise their constitutional right to propose or repeal laws in odd years, then the Legislature should not have the power either.”

Perhaps Gov. Inslee has stumbled on the best way to fight voter apathy and improve turnout. I-976 has been put on hold, and he’s already ignored the results of Referendum 88 by establishing a new bureaucracy. With the progressive Legislature rolling full steam ahead over conservative objections, Washington may set a record for voter turnout in 2020.

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