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Recapping the November 2023 Local Ballot Measure Results

Two people ride bikes through a park

Another November has come and gone — I don’t know where the time goes! — which means it’s time for me to review the local ballot measures that appeared on the general election ballot.

At MRSC, we’ve been tracking all local ballot measures except schools since 2011. (We don’t track races for elected official positions.) I’ve updated our Local Ballot Measure Database with all 113 measures that appeared before voters this past November. I don’t have space to write about them all, but here are some things that caught my attention. I’ve included links to local news articles and resources whenever possible.

Record-Low Voter Turnout

Voter turnout is usually much lower in “off-year” elections — the odd-numbered years when there are no federal or state offices on the ballot. But for many local governments, that’s a misnomer — elections for city council, mayor, and special purpose district boards are held in odd-numbered years. (Counties, by comparison, mostly elect their officials in even-numbered years under state law or county charter.)

This year saw record-low general election turnout, with just 36.4% of registered voters in the state casting a ballot. Compare that to the 2022 general election, when almost 64% voted, and the 2020 general election, when over 84% voted. At the same time, this year is hardly an anomaly – the previous record lows were set in other recent “off-year” elections in 2017 (37.1%) and 2015 (38.5%).

Various explanations have been given, including the lack of any statewide ballot measures, the decline of local news coverage, low turnout among newly eligible young voters, and voter fatigue with so many election cycles.

Low turnout can also make it more difficult for local governments to pass certain types of ballot measures, such as bonds or certain property taxes that require “validation” — a minimum level of voter turnout compared to the previous year’s general election.

This year’s low turnout has renewed debate among some state officials about allowing cities and towns to hold elections in even-numbered years instead of odd-numbered years.

Fire Protection & Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

There were 24 fire district levy lid lifts on the ballot, of which 19 passed (79%) and 5 failed (21%). In addition, voters approved:

Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice

Voters approved:

  • Two new sales taxes in Stevens County: A 0.3% public safety sales tax under RCW 82.14.450 and a 0.1% jails and juvenile detention facilities sales tax under RCW 82.14.350. Both sales taxes will be used to build a new jail, replacing the existing facility which is old, overcrowded, and unsafe.
  • A continuation of Benton County’s existing 0.3% public safety sales tax for criminal justice needs. The tax had previously been approved for 10 years only and was set to expire on December 31 of next year, but now it will be made permanent.
  • A 0.2% public safety sales tax in Thurston County, with 75% of the revenue going to law enforcement and the remainder allocated to the prosecuting attorney’s office, public defense, and elections security infrastructure.
  • A 0.2% public safety sales tax increase in Whatcom County to build a new jail in Ferndale. Earlier attempts failed in 2015 and 2017, but this measure included significantly more funding for providing behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, and supportive housing services when inmates are released.
  • A 0.1% public safety sales tax in Omak, with a portion of the proceeds to be used for criminal justice and/or fire protection as provided under state law.
  • A levy lid lift in Maple Valley for police services, including safety patrols, school zone traffic enforcement, school resource officers, and crime prevention programs. The city contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office and has seen significant cost increases due to wages and inflation.

Voters rejected:

  • A 30-year, 0.2% public safety sales tax in Spokane County. The funds would have been used to build two new jails next to the existing jail, but the proposal was contentious and split largely along partisan lines. Similar to the earlier Whatcom County votes, opponents argued that too many resources would be spent locking people up and not enough on mental health, addiction treatment, or social services.
  • A $56 million bond measure in Puyallup to build a new police station and jail, replacing the existing facilities that are aging and overcrowded. This is the third time in the last two years that a proposed public safety bond has failed. The previous two times, the bond came close to the required 60% supermajority for bonds, but this time a scaled-back version got just 47% support.

Hospital Funding

Many hospitals in Washington, and especially in rural areas, are facing significant financial challenges. Several public hospital districts (PHDs) placed funding measures before voters this election cycle.

Voters approved:

Meanwhile, voters rejected a proposed $72 million bond measure for the Okanogan-Douglas PHD (Three Rivers Hospital) to build a new hospital and carry out other capital improvements to replace the aging facilities that do not meet current healthcare standards.

Parks and Recreation Funding

Voters approved:

  • A new park and recreation district in Columbia County for the purpose of constructing and operating a swimming pool in Dayton. The existing pool closed over six years ago and the city decided it could not re-open the pool due to safety and drainage problems. A similar attempt using a slightly different mechanism — a metropolitan park district — failed last year. The newly approved district does not have any funding yet – that would require a separate ballot measure in the future or other funding sources to be determined.
  • The creation of a new metropolitan park district in Grant County to construct a sports complex and new aquatic facility. This new Quincy Valley Regional Parks District will be governed through interlocal agreement between Quincy, George, and Grant County.
  • A $27 million bond measure for the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District to develop an aquatic recreation center.
  • The “Greenways 5” levy lid lift in Bellingham to continue the city’s park and greenbelt projects.
  • A 6-year park district levy renewal for the Point Roberts Park and Recreation District.

Voters said no to:

Housing & Homelessness

Seattle voters approved a 7-year levy lid lift, replacing a previous levy, to generate almost $1 billion to provide housing and related services to low-income households and people experiencing homelessness.

In Spokane, 75% of voters supported a citizen initiative to prohibit homeless encampments within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, and licensed child care facilities, following unsuccessful attempts by opponents to keep the measure off the ballot. An appeals court upheld the proposition last week, although advocates are considering an appeal to the state supreme court. This comes at a time when many cities across Washington and other Western states are struggling with the issue of homelessness, and a number of jurisdictions have recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn previous court rulings restricting cities’ ability to regulate and clean up homeless camps.

Tacoma voters narrowly approved a controversial initiative giving additional rights to residential tenants and placing new restrictions on landlords — including requiring landlords to offer relocation assistance if the rent increase is 5% or more and preventing certain evictions during the school year for students, preventing evictions between November 1 and April 1 each year, and preventing evictions of certain protected groups including servicemembers, seniors, and families. The City of Tacoma has said the way the initiative is written prevents the city from enforcing the new law administratively, so tenants would have to go to court in case of an alleged violation.

Bellingham voters approved two initiatives regarding worker and tenant rights. The first will establish a minimum wage that will increase to $2 above the state minimum wage and provide other worker protections. The second will provide protection to rental tenants, including requiring landlords to provide 120-days’ notice of rent increases more than 8% and pay relocation assistance when increasing rent more than 8%.

Other Measures

Here are some additional measures of note:

  • Port Townsend voters approved a 0.3% transportation benefit district sales tax for road and sidewalk repair.
  • Monroe voters approved a renewal of the city’s existing 0.2% transportation benefit district sales tax.
  • Voters in Lewis County narrowly rejected a 0.2% E-911 sales tax for emergency communications systems and facilities.
  • In an advisory vote in Stanwood, voters supported prohibiting fireworks within the city limits.
  • The Chelan/Douglas Regional Port Authority, which functionally consolidated in 2020, successfully passed a unified port levy under new legislation adopted earlier this year. The levy will equalize the port’s property tax rates in the two counties, resulting in a small tax decrease in larger Chelan County (where the measure was strongly supported) and a small tax increase in smaller Douglas County (where the measure was strongly opposed). Because the measure only required a simple majority of both counties combined, the measure passed. An error on the ballot measure caused some confusion: the ballot measure referred to a tax rate of “0.164 cents” per $1,000 AV instead of $0.164 or 16.4 cents, but the port says it will not affect the levy rate.

Full Results

For the full results, see our Local Ballot Measure Database. Select “Filter by Ballot Categories” and then select “Most Recent Election.”

Planning Your Own Ballot Measure?

Be sure to check out our Local Government Ballot Measures webpage for information on election dates, timing, ballot titles, explanatory statements, pro and con committees, and much more!

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Steve Hawley

Steve joined MRSC in July 2014 and is responsible for writing, editing, and conducting research for many of MRSC’s website resources, with a particular focus on local government finance, budgeting, ballot measures, and procurement. He has a broad communications and public policy background with over a decade of local government and nonprofit experience.