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What Makes A Successful Ballot Measure? A Look at the Data

Since 2011, MRSC has collected data on the results of all ballot measures placed on the ballot by cities, counties, and the special districts we serve.  A review of the results of over 600 measures in our searchable ballot measure database shows some very interesting trends.  73% of all ballot measures succeed, but that only tells part of the story.

Elements of Success

Bob O’Neill, the Executive Director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), has noted that most successful ballot measures are: (1) clearly written to address specific, identified needs; (2) developed through a community engagement process; and (3) put forward by a trusted agent.  If your measure has all three of these elements, you are likely on your way to success.

Data from Washington State shows that measures that address certain needs are more likely to pass than others.  Of all issues that had 10 or more measures since 2011, those that addressed Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Fire had the highest likelihood of passage.  Over 90% of EMS measures passed during this time period.  That’s really no surprise, since voters consistently place the highest priority on life safety issues.  The least likely (57%) measures to pass are those that address changes to government organization, including charter changes, or changes to or from a strong mayor or city manager form of government.  Absent a crisis or scandal, voters are reluctant to change their form of government.


The data also show that measures that are very specific about what is funded fare far better than a more general funding request.  Measures that simply fund general operations and maintenance or that replenish general fund reserves rarely succeed.  Measures that mix and match, such as parks and transportation on the same ballot, do not do as well as individual measures for each topic.  And Vehicle License Fees (VLF) appear to be the least favored form of funding by the voters.  No measure has passed with the VLF as a funding source, but that may change this November when Seattle voters weigh in on a transit package funded in part by the VLF.

Rural Counties and Cities – Government that is Closer to the People?

It’s interesting that all of the counties that had a 95%+ passage rate are more rural counties, including Ferry, Whitman, Douglas, Lincoln, Skamania, and Pacific.  These numbers include county-wide elections and individual city or special district votes within the county.  Urban counties tended to have lower passage rates, including Clark (44%*), Snohomish (60%), Pierce (68%), King (69%), and Spokane (70%).  Some of this variation reflects the fact that urban counties and cities tend to place funding measures that are more likely to be perceived by voters as level of service enhancements rather than basic needs.  For example, voters rejected publicly financed council elections in Seattle and the funding of a regional animal shelter in Spokane County.  However, rural counties and cities appear to have an advantage in that they tend to be the “trusted agents” that Bob O’Neill referred to as one of the important components of success.  When small cities and counties identify a community need, they are better able to communicate that need to their residents and gain consensus around it.  For example, in August Whitman County passed a modest property tax levy for general fund expenses and services – something that would be virtually impossible in more urban cities and counties.

We’ll be continuing to update the ballot measure database and will report on new trends in types of ballot measures.  In the meantime, check out the database and give us feedback on how well it works.  You can search the database by jurisdiction, by funding mechanism, by topic, and keyword to hone in on the results you are seeking. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet of the results that will give you more information on the amount and duration of the funding measure.

*The Clark County total excludes a measure from the City of Woodland, which is located in both Clark and Cowlitz counties.

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.

Photo of Tracy Burrows

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.