60 episodes

Cascadia’s sustainability think tank brings you a feed of its latest research articles, in text-to-audio recordings. Learn how the region can advance abundant housing for vibrant communities; reform our democratic systems and elections to honor the public’s priorities, including its support for climate solutions; make a just transition away from fossil fuels and into a 21st-century energy economy; and model forestry and agricultural practices that rebuild our soils, ecosystems, and rural economies. View articles in full at sightline.org.

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    • Government

Cascadia’s sustainability think tank brings you a feed of its latest research articles, in text-to-audio recordings. Learn how the region can advance abundant housing for vibrant communities; reform our democratic systems and elections to honor the public’s priorities, including its support for climate solutions; make a just transition away from fossil fuels and into a 21st-century energy economy; and model forestry and agricultural practices that rebuild our soils, ecosystems, and rural economies. View articles in full at sightline.org.

    When Do Cities Hold Elections?

    When Do Cities Hold Elections?

    A US Dataset on Election Consolidation
    The best-kept secret of boosting voter participation is election consolidation. Moving local elections to the same ballot as national ones increases turnout more than any other election upgrade, often doubling participation in local races. Synchronizing elections is popular with voters, for whom it saves time and hassle. When asked whether to consolidate elections, voters almost always vote yes by large margins.
    Consolidation also improves representation of voters who are working-age, renters, and less wealthy; dilutes the political influence of special interests; is more effective than unsynchronized elections in selecting local officials whose actions align with the wishes and beliefs of local majorities; enhances the accountability and legitimacy of local government; does not favor one political party over the other, nor any particular political ideology; and can save millions of taxpayer dollars.
    At present, though, a large majority of US cities and towns hold their elections out of sync with national elections, a practice elite reformers started more than a century ago to dampen the influence of ethnic voters and their political "machines." These "off-cycle" elections are relegated to a wide range of dates that are locked in by state or local laws.
    A trend toward election consolidation has emerged in recent decades and has picked up speed, with scores of cities rescheduling their elections to ride the turnout coattails of national voting and save money. Nationwide in the United States, more than 50 large cities (including almost all cities in Arizona, California, and Nevada) have consolidated their elections in the past two decades. In 2022 alone, a dozen localities passed ballot measures to move their voting to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
    Until now, no one has assembled a reliable directory of when municipal elections are held in major American cities and what laws dictate those schedules. Consequently, leaders, journalists, reformers, and scholars have been hard-pressed to understand the dimensions of off-cycle voting or track its trends.
    This report presents and summarizes Sightline's Municipal Election Consolidation Dataset, a new dataset on election timing in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia, and an associated interactive map.
    The dataset details what state law says about municipal election schedules. It also includes election timing information for 420 large US cities---home to more than 102 million people. These cities include the five most populous cities in each state and all US cities of more than 100,000 residents.
    By examining state constitutions and laws for all states plus municipal charters and ordinances for all these cities, Sightline identified not only when elections are currently scheduled but also the legal basis for those calendars. In other words, Sightline pinpointed what statutes leaders would have to revise to move elections from their disparate off-cycle dates to national election day.
    All but five states (Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia) conduct their state elections on-cycle with national elections, and all but 10 states schedule all or virtually all county elections with national elections, according to scholar Sarah F. Anzia in her book Timing & Turnout.
    Election information website Ballotpedia recently studied school board elections and found a distribution of dates similar to what Sightline found for municipalities: 25 mostly off-cycle states; 14 mostly on-cycle states; the remainder a mix. This report focuses on municipal (or city) elections, specifically city council elections.
    A recent working paper from scholars at Boston University found a similar distribution of mayoral elections. In a smattering of cases, elections in US cities are consolidated with or identical to those for county governments. Among these, for example, are Arlington, Virginia; Butte, Montana; Columbus, Georgi

    • 30 min
    Voter Participation Jumped When Alaska Opened Its Primaries

    Voter Participation Jumped When Alaska Opened Its Primaries

    2022 turnout for every candidate contest reached a decade high.
    In Alaska's 2022 primary election, turnout in every candidate race rose to the highest rate in a decade. Larger shares of Alaska voters cast ballots in the races for governor, Congress, and the state legislature than in any of the previous five elections. Participation peaked across the political spectrum. Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third-party voters all cast ballots at higher rates in 2022 than the previous decade's average.
    The increase coincided with the debut of nonpartisan open primaries, where all candidates appeared on a single ballot available to all voters, regardless of party. Alaska appears to have followed a pattern seen in other states, where opening the primaries came with a turnout boost of at least a few percentage points.
    Other factors that may have boosted turnout include an unusually large number of campaigns unfolding across the state, voter interest in high-profile candidates, competitive races, and exposure to election news coverage. Voter participation is a temperature check on American democracy. High turnout signals that citizens are engaged in public life and democracy is thriving, while low turnout indicates the opposite. Yet low voter turnout in primary elections is the default across the country.
    In 2022, no state exceeded 50 percent primary election turnout. And only four states have reached 35 percent turnout at least once in the past four nonpresidential primary elections, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. In that context, Alaska's 37 percent turnout among eligible voters was commendable and ranked as the third-highest voter participation rate of all states in 2022.
    Still, Alaska has ample room to improve voter turnout across the political spectrum and in the selection of presidential candidates, a process controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Continued low turnout in Alaska's 2024 presidential primaries, where the reforms don't apply, provides a strong contrast to the rest of the state's primary races.
    PRIMARY ELECTION TURNOUT IN ALASKA INCREASED IN 2022 FOR EVERY CONTEST AND EVERY PARTY
    The 2022 midterm primary elections in Alaska grabbed voters' attention. Turnout for all statewide races (governor, US Senate, and US House) exceeded 35 percent. Voter participation for the legislative races rose above 30 percent for the first time in the past decade. A vacant seat in the US HouseThe US House race unexpectedly took the spotlight following the death in March 2022 of US Representative Don Young, who had represented Alaska in Congress for 49 years. Young's death triggered a special primary in June to decide who would serve out the remainder of his term. The regular primary followed, as scheduled, in August. Both used the new nonpartisan open primary format.
    Turnout in the regular primary for the US House race hit 36 percent, a record high for the decade. The race attracted a huge field of 22 contenders. All voters, regardless of political party registration, were free to choose any one of those candidates. The leading candidates also created significant buzz and media attention through their charisma, cross-partisan platforms, and name recognition. The top four vote-getters (Mary Peltola, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, and Tara Sweeney) moved on to the ranked choice general election, which Peltola won.
    An incumbent defends her seat in the US Senate
    The US Senate primary came down to moderate versus conservative Republican politics. A seasoned incumbent, Senator Lisa Murkowski, faced 18 challengers. Murkowski had survived a 2010 Republican primary ouster to win a write-in campaign in the general election with the help of Democrats. She needed them again to push her over the line.
    Her positions in Congress, a mix of support for abortion rights and opposition to President Donald Trump, while also protecting Alaska's oil and mining production and gun ownership reflected that. Murkowski's closest challe

    • 17 min
    Spoiler alert! Majority winners are not a guarantee

    Spoiler alert! Majority winners are not a guarantee

    Oregon's past statewide and federal elections are full of spoiler candidates and non-majority winners.
    No one likes spoilers. Spoiled food, spoiled plans…and spoiled elections.
    In 31 contests over the past dozen years, candidates for statewide or federal office in Oregon have celebrated victory without first winning majority support.
    In other words, in almost one-sixth of Oregon races (16 percent), more voters selected non-winning candidates than cast ballots for the ultimate winner.
    Take the most recent governor's race. Democrat Tina Kotek won with 47 percent of the vote---about 67,000 votes more than her main competitor, Republican Christine Drazan. But nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson received 168,000 votes, which was more than enough to swing the election.
    Similar cases pockmark state election records. Third, fourth, or even more candidates have complicated over half of Oregon's gubernatorial races in the past twelve years. They have done the same in races for US representative, secretary of state, and state treasurer.
    In all these cases, it's not clear if the person who won was actually preferred by the voters. If different candidates had run or if a spoiler candidate had dropped out, the outcome might have shuffled. These "plurality winners" may not represent the will of the people and might push ideas at odds with the desires of the bulk of the electorate.
    Some states, such as Georgia, employ separate runoff elections to avoid this predicament. California and Washington use top-two general elections for the same reason. And Oregon could, like its cities of Portland and Corvallis, use ranked choice voting to ensure that winners earn a majority of votes.
    Indeed, the availability of simple solutions like ranked choice voting makes the prevalence of the spoiler problem grate even more.
    In general elections, third parties change the game
    Third-party candidates influenced three of the past five general elections for Oregon's governor. And in a fourth case, the winner only barely logged a majority.
    Even before the 2022 governor's race, Democrats worried about Johnson's candidacy spoiling the election for Kotek. They had seen a similar dynamic unfold in both 2010 and 2014 but in the inverse: it helped the Democrat.
    Democrat John Kitzhaber won in 2010, with a margin of victory of about 22,000 votes more than Republican Chris Dudley but just short of a majority. Two third-party candidates each received almost enough votes to make up the difference between Kitzhaber and Dudley: Greg Kord (Constitution Party) with 20,475 and Wes Wagner (Libertarian) with 19,048. Either candidate could almost have been a spoiler, pulling voters away from Dudley; together, they very likely changed the election outcome just by running.
    In 2014 Kitzhaber won reelection with 49.9 percent of the vote, which was much closer but still not a majority.
    The 2018 governor's race barely ended with a majority winner. Although Democratic incumbent Kate Brown received more votes than her closest competitor, she had just 1,999 more than the total votes cast for other candidates.
    Spoiler candidates show up on ballots besides those for governor. In 2016 Republican Dennis Richardson won the race to be Oregon's secretary of state with 78,580 votes more than the next candidate, Democrat Brad Avakian, ending Democrats' fourteen-year hold on statewide offices. But four other candidates received almost 175,000 combined votes, which was more than enough to change the outcome.
    The same year, Democrat Tobias Read earned 42,000 more votes than his Republican opponent, Jeff Gudman, to win the race for state treasurer. But two additional candidates received many more votes than Read's modest edge: Progressive Chris Henry with more than 90,000 votes and Independent Party nominee (and former Republican state senator) Chris Telfer with more than 173,000. In 2020 Telfer seemed to realize that she might have diverted votes from Gudman, chose not to run, and endorsed Gudman

    • 10 min
    The Bizarre Red-Blue Politics of Election Consolidation

    The Bizarre Red-Blue Politics of Election Consolidation

    And the chance for stronger democracy it creates.
    In a 2012 state legislative hearing, the lead proponent of a bill to consolidate local elections in November of even-numbered years said:
    This bill would do one thing and one thing only. It would make Election Day uniform throughout the state…[it] ought to be a non-controversial topic. …This bill saves money. It increases voter turnout. …If we believe in representative democracy…we should support this bill.
    Was the speaker progressive or conservative? A Republican or a Democrat?
    What about the champion of a similar bill in a different state who said this in 2015?
    "There is one major contributing factor to low voter turnout - the timing of elections - that could be addressed with a relatively simple policy change."
    And how about the legislative sponsor of a 2023 bill in yet another state who proposed to move "every single type of election in the state…to our regular even-year elections" because "doubling turnout - that's all for the good"?
    BIZARRE-PARTISANSHIP
    The first speaker was the Arizona arch-conservative Clint Bolick, co-founder of the libertarian Institute for Justice. The second quote is from the arch-liberal interest group California Common Cause. The third is from of Montana state representative Mike Hopkins (R).
    Is election consolidation (moving local elections to the same November ballot as national elections) a rare political case, then? Is it a reform where the left and right work together?
    Not at all. To date, it's been more bizarre-partisan than bipartisan. In these states and others, proponents and opponents recite the same arguments for and against election consolidation. Indeed, if you go online and watch hearings on these bills (as I have done for five states) or comb through media coverage from a half dozen other states considering the idea, you'll learn that the scripts are almost verbatim but the parties keep trading parts.
    SWAPPING SCRIPTS
    An example from the pro side:
    "It's better to have 60 percent of the people rather than 30 or 40 percent of the people choosing,"
    Kansas state senator Damon Thayer (R) said in 2020 as he argued against unified Democratic opposition for consolidated elections. Three years later, New York state senator James Skoufis (D) argued incredulously for election consolidation against a phalanx of Republican opponents.
    "You have 20 or so percent of voters deciding the outcome for the entire jurisdiction,"
    he said.
    "Why are you so afraid of 50, 60, 70 percent of voters determining who should hold these local positions?"
    And one from the con side:
    "[Democrats] will stop at nothing to manipulate the system to rig themselves into total and permanent power,"
    state Republican party chair Nick Langworthy of New York complained in 2022. A year later, Tennessee House Democratic caucus chair John Ray Clemmons called a Republican's election consolidation bill a way to
    "manipulate the democratic process for the sole purpose of consolidating even more power."
    Watch enough of these hearings and you'll experience a singular combination of déjà vu and whiplash.
    ROLE REVERSALS
    Leaders' actions matched their words. Almost every state election consolidation proposal in living memory has split legislators along party lines. In red states, Republicans vote yea and Democrats vote nay. In blue states, vice versa. It's an unusual pattern that's possibly unique.
    Often, the proposals were almost identical, even borrowed. In 2012, for example, the Arizona legislature passed the bill Bolick was testifying for (HB2826 2012). Championed by the conservative Goldwater Institute and supported by GOP mainstays like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the bill won with three-fourths of Republican senators and four-fifths of Republican representatives voting yes. Republican governor Jan Brewer signed the bill, which almost all Democrats opposed, into law.
    Three years later, in 2015, neighboring California considered a similar bill (SB 415). On

    • 35 min
    Audit Stretches to Find Trouble in Portland's Affordability Mandate

    Audit Stretches to Find Trouble in Portland's Affordability Mandate

    Should people who qualify for subsidized housing get to have home offices? And other odd questions.
    On Wednesday, the Portland city auditor's office released an investigation of Portland's inclusionary housing program, the affordability mandate that applies to new buildings of 20 or more homes.
    The audit makes some good arguments and some confusing arguments. It found one fairly glaring problem in the program: a two-year backlog in the city's work to check that landlords and tenants are in compliance. Then, to make things more confusing, The Oregonian decided to make a seemingly scandalous headline of something the auditors hadn't even recommended changing---the fact that the program has covered part of its own administrative costs using the relative trickle of money it collected directly.
    Because Sightline has a long history of caring deeply about inclusionary zoning and wanting Cascadian governments to get it right, I decided to dedicate a throwback Thursday to a bloggy point by point response to some findings and recommendations of this audit.
    I'm going to try to minimize technical language, but things may still get a little obscure. In classic blogger fashion, I'd be happy to talk more in the comments.
    Okay, without further ado:
    "Improve Program goals so they are specific to the Program, attainable based on who the Program is designed to serve, and measurable."
    Sightline's take: yep.
    Portland's inclusionary housing program ("IH") was put together in a hurry, in an environment of justifiable urgency that verged on panic. In 2014 and 2015, a construction collapse followed quickly by a migration boom had sent Portland rents and displacement soaring at the fastest rates in many years. In November 2016---the same day they funded the city's first local affordable housing bond---voters would take matters into their own hands by putting tenant advocate Chloe Eudaly, a thoughtful bookstore owner who barely campaigned but happened to be really upset about rising rents and really good at Facebook, on the incoming city council.
    In the months leading up to that transfer of power, inclusionary housing, re-legalized by the state legislature one year prior, was Something the City Could Do. The unfortunate result of this enthusiasm was that the city essentially started with a set of desired program specs and retroactively filled in a rationale for them, without ever clearly defining the program's goals.
    Yesterday, the auditors found that those original goals "were not effective performance measurement tools and did not accurately convey the Program's purpose."
    It's a good point. Better defining success was one of our four recommendations last year for improving the program. New program language (approved this year, after the research for yesterday's audit had already been conducted) is a modest improvement, but the key language ("support the production of units") is still too vague to be a very useful test of whether or not the program is working as intended.
    "Fees are intended to fund affordable housing development and preservation, but according to the Bureau, as of June 2023, this had not yet happened. Instead, the fees have gone solely towards Program operating costs."
    Sightline's take: More transparency here would be good, but the existence of administrative costs isn't a scandal.
    One of the so-called "sideboards" placed on local inclusionary housing programs by Oregon law is that they must offer a "fee-in-lieu option." Developers must have an option to pay cash to the city as an alternative to providing affordable housing themselves. The state doesn't restrict how cities can use this cash, and until this year the city didn't formally promise to use it in any specific way, though it was understood to be intended for affordable housing programs.
    Instead, the city apparently used this money to fund its affordable housing program ... in other words, it used the trickle of cash revenue generated by inclusionary housing to cover the exp

    • 13 min
    Bellingham's Parking Reform Pilot Pays Off

    Bellingham's Parking Reform Pilot Pays Off

    Old Town's first new building project has more than double the number of homes and less parking than the city's old code would have allowed. The rest of the city might follow suit.
    Bellingham's industrial Old Town district is finally beginning its transformation into the walkable neighborhood city planners have long envisioned - thanks, in part, to a decision last year to try giving builders full flexibility over parking counts in that area.
    The experiment has paid off. The first building proposed since the regulatory change will have more than twice the number of homes as would have been allowed last year.
    "The shift to no parking minimums was a clear win in this case,"
    wrote Ali Taysi, a land use consultant for the project.
    The six-story building, located on the former recycling facility at 707 Astor, will house a mix of 84 studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments, with 1,600 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor. Permits are expected to be filed in May, with builders hoping to break ground early next year. The project is likely the first of several coming to the neighborhood, after the city signed a development agreement in 2023 for the eight city blocks that used to serve as scrapyard.
    Now, the parking reform is being considered citywide.
    UNLOCKING THE POTENTIAL OF OLD TOWN
    Old Town's transformation from industrial scrapyard to walkable mixed-use neighborhood has been anticipated since 2008 when the area was designated as the city's second "urban village," after downtown. At the time, planners estimated that 1,100 homes could be added there by 2022. Today, only 44 have been built.
    The Parberry family, who first started salvaging metals along Whatcom Creek in 1923, owned 46 percent of developable land in the district, or about eight city blocks. Their initial plans to relocate the recycling facility were scuttled by the 2008 recession, but in recent years they discontinued their Old Town operations.
    Building in Old Town is no easy feat. Decades of dumping refuse along the tidal mudflats of Whatcom Creek created 13 acres of landfill by the 1950s. The Department of Ecology remediated the area in 2005, removing tons of solid waste and capping the remaining contaminated soil. Excavation work can be prohibitively expensive, and restrictions on ground floor living and daycare centers remain in place. Future residents will also have to contend with the freight trains that run parallel to the district that sound their horns throughout the night.
    But at a Planning Commission hearing on April 20, 2023, it seemed like Old Town's future might finally have arrived.
    "I wish it would have happened a little bit quicker,"
    said Tara Sundin, Manager of Community and Economic Development for the city.
    "But I'm just thankful that we have people that have been willing to come forward into one of our riskier parts of town."
    Developers Curt O'Conner and Pete Dawson, who both grew up in Bellingham, have paired up for the undertaking by purchasing all but one of the Parberry properties.
    A PARKING REFORM PILOT TAKES SHAPE
    To make building in Old Town feasible, builders proposed changes to the zoning code with the local Planning Commission. One modification was reducing parking mandates to be consistent with the city's other urban villages. Instead of mandating a parking spot for every studio apartment, for example, the city would only require one parking space for every two.
    "The conversation on 'no parking minimums' hadn't really crossed our radar,"
    said Taysi, the developers' consultant.
    "We thought it might be a bridge too far.
    Members of the planning commission, though, thought Old Town might be the perfect place to give builders full flexibility over parking.
    "This could be an opportunity to try to go further,"
    Commissioner Rose Lathrop proposed.
    Another commissioner, Mike McAuley, agreed:
    "If we want to pilot something, this would be an amazing place to do that,"
    he said.
    "If we're forcing the market to pay for a $60,000 park

    • 7 min

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