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Serious changes to Seattle elections could be on your ballot next year

caption: A voter drops off his ballot at a King County Elections drop box outside of a north Seattle public library Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
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A voter drops off his ballot at a King County Elections drop box outside of a north Seattle public library Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is floating a proposed charter amendment to change when the city's elections occur.

It would "stagger" city council elections to reduce the number held in a single year, and also seeks to move all Seattle races from odd years to even years to try and juice voter turnout.

More people vote in even election years according to a central staff report delivered Tuesday to the council's Finance and Housing Committee. In 2022, for example, more than 70% of Seattle's registered voters cast ballots. In 2021, around 55% voted.

One academic study found moving to even years can also lead to a more representative electorate “in terms of race, age, and partisanship.”

RELATED: Does Washington state's ballot signature rule disenfranchise voters?

Some critics say the change to even years could overburden voters who already have enough work trying to decide between dozens of candidates for local races. Harried voters might end up leaning more heavily on political ads or newspaper endorsements than they already do.

King County voters elected to make the switch to even-year voting last fall. But for Seattle to make the change, state lawmakers need to vote in favor of it first. It is being considered in Olympia.

To be clear, the change to even-year voting would not go into effect immediately, if that becomes possible under state law. The charter amendment would just allow a future council to make that change by ordinance.

The other part of Mosqueda’ s charter amendment proposal would not need state approval — moving to a system of “staggered” elections.

Mosqueda said there is a problem, currently, with too many council member seats up for re-election some years, which could lead to a loss of “institutional knowledge.” This year, for example, seven of the nine city council positions are on the November ballot and four of those are “open seat” races because the incumbents decided not to run.

Plus, Mosqueda herself is it not up for re-election, but is running for King County Council. If she wins, that could lead to even more change.

Under Mosqueda's proposal, five council members would be elected in one cycle and four in the next.

“Having greater stability and less turnover is a good thing for democracy,” she said.

Some council members raised concerns about the proposed changes during the briefing.

“I don't think that we should be messing with our election system, especially not one set up by citizens’ initiative without a really good reason for doing so, and I'm not seeing evidence of a problem that this is trying to fix,” said Councilmember Sara Nelson who represents position 9, a citywide seat.

If the council passes Mosqueda's resolution, which still needs to be formally introduced, the proposed changes could be on the November 2024 ballot.

9/18/2023: This story has been updated to state that a change to even-year voting would only become possible if approved under state law, then approved through a council ordinance.

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