A House committee may advance a bill that bars votes on initiatives and referendums during odd-numbered years. The arguments for HB 2529 introduced by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33) is that restricting such proposals to even-numbered years will result in more voter participation and greater representation of voter demographics. However, local government advocates warn the move could actually have the opposite effect due to the sheer number of votes placed on one ballot.
“Our concern is that the more races we have, the harder it’s going to get for people to vote down ballot and get to those municipal races,” Association of Washington Cities Government Relations Advocate Sharon Swanson told the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations at a Jan. 21 public hearing. “These one-off elections in odd numbered years…could drive down voter turnout even more if you have one or two races.”
“There’s no doubt that voters get fatigued when a ballot is too long,” Washington State Association of Counties Public Affairs Director Mike Hoover said. However, he added that “we also have to consider that voters tend not to get excited if a ballot may be too short.”
The bill also appears to run afoul of the state constitution. Article 1 Section 34 states that “the authority hereby conferred upon the legislature shall not be construed to grant to the legislature any exclusive power of lawmaking nor in any way limit the initiative and referendum powers reserved by the people.”
Making the case for HB 2529 was University of San Diego Professor Zoltan Hajnal, whose report argued that voter turnout in California elections during odd-numbered years didn’t represent the state’s overall demographics compared to even-numbered years. The report also noted popular nationwide support among both Republicans and Democrats for even-numbered elections.
“Democracy should be broad and should be representative, and to the extent that we can make participation in democracy relatively easy and therefore make democracy more representative it makes sense to do so at present gain,” he said.
However, skeptics point to steps already taken to make voting less restrictive. Residents eligible to vote can register on Election Day and vote via mail, with postage prepaid by the state.
“What is preventing voters from participating in odd years?” Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier asked in tweet.
“It seems to me that the argument for going to on-cycle elections…has a principled problem,” the committee’s ranking minority member Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) said. “It is essentially normalizing and rewarding the lack of voters fulfilling their civic duty to vote. It’s tailoring the system to non-voting, when what we ought to be doing is encouraging more voter turnout in those off-cycle elections.”
Secretary of State Kim Wyman told legislators the bill “reduces voter access to the constitutional process of citizen initiative and referendum as well as voter participation in the election of appointed officeholders.” She added that pushing referendums and initiatives to a two-year cycle “could mean signature collection could be done on a ballot measure one year and not be presented to the voters on the ballot until the following November. I’m afraid that this could cause voter confusion.”
While the bill is ostensibly intended to achieve greater voter representation, Mercier notes that certain types of votes, such as local levy increases, are exempt in the bill.
HB 2529 is scheduled for an executive session on Jan 31.