Column: Washington State should end off-year elections

OK, bear with me here. I know Washington State has a long history of holding municipal and special elections in odd years. This could be happening because people feel like voters can be overloaded with too many choices if they were all on the even year ballots. It may have been done so local elections get more attention than if they were run during a Presidential or U.S Senate campaign.The off-year may have been thought of as a “farm system” for candidates seeking higher office.

The problem is that off-year elections are resulting in very low turnout. As in some of the worst turnout for any election in the world. 

In general, turnout for American elections is about average compared to other countries around the world at about 53%. This compares to Switzerland bringing up the rear at 38.6% and Belgium taking the top position at 87%. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/02/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/

Our off-year election voter turnout is dropping precipitously over the last four off-year elections. Here’s the data (https://www.sos.wa.gov/):

  • 2015 38.45%
  • 2013 45.27%
  • 2011 52.95%
  • 2009 50.89%

As you can see that puts Washington State off-year elections below the worst turnout (Switzerland) in the world.

This doesn’t even account for voters that are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. According to the United States Election Project, there are about 11% of our citizens who could register but have not done so. So, that means our actual turnout for off-year elections is somewhere around 30%. Yes, three out of ten eligible voters voted in the 2015 off-year election. 

These off-year elections are hampering our civic engagement. They create the idea in some voter’s minds that some elections are important and some are not. These off-year elections force municipal candidates to campaign with little support, few resources and scant attention. Voters in Washington State come off the fatigue of a presidential election often uninspired to reengage after long and grueling campaigns.

This reform of our off-year elections should be added to a list of reforms designed to encourage civic participation including not requiring stamps on returned ballots, increasing the number of ballot boxes, adding more translated languages and stronger work by state auditors to “cure” rejected ballots. 

Our first step should be putting municipal and special elections on even year ballots. These municipal candidates would benefit from the energy and engagement of the even year electorate. They would be talking to voters at their highest level of engagement. The excitement of local elections combined with state and national elections could push turn out in even years higher so our turnout is some of the best in the world. 

Our state should be proud of our civic engagement instead of disappointed. People are living busy lives with many competing demands for attention. Washington State needs to work on better customer service for our voters. In other words, we need to make it easier and more convenient for voters to make their choices of public officials. The first step is to put all elections in even years.

John Wyble, Principal, WinPower Strategies

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