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Rainier Valley gets snubbed again

King County provided a ballot drop box outside the Ballard Library and at three other spots in Seattle north of the Ship Canal but none in all of Southeast Seattle. Credit: Dennis Bratland/Flickr

It’s bad enough that, fast food and payday loans aside, chains and major retailers have shunned Southeast Seattle, which has the most immigrants, poverty, ethnic diversity, and public housing of the city’s districts. But Southeast residents are used to getting the short end of the stick in public services as well. They scarcely blinked when the state divested its liquor stores; it shut all three of its Southeast Seattle stores many years ago. (It later opened two new ones there, one just a year before the handover.) The state also closed its only Southeast driver’s license office, in Hillman City, but kept offices open in Greenwood and West Seattle.

Southeast residents still smart at the way Sound Transit sliced their district in two, displacing or shuttering many businesses, with a surface light-rail line down MLK Way (not to mention the badly misdesigned station and botched transit connections at McClellan Street and a nearly two-mile gap between the Alaska and Othello stations). Residents in, say, the Roosevelt and University districts would never stand for that, and they won’t have to. Sound Transit will tunnel under those neighborhoods.

In 2008, the Seattle Police Department performed what a spokesman calls some “minor” redrawing of the territories patrolled by its various precincts to prepare for an anticipated annexation of White Center that never happened. In this not-so-minor redistricting, two patrol districts, covering Georgetown and the Duwamish industrial belt, were transferred from the Southwest Precinct, which serves West Seattle and would have received the new White Center turf, to the South Precinct, which covers Beacon Hill, the Rainier Valley, and the adjacent lakeshore neighborhoods. The South Precinct also received all of SoDo south of Holgate Street, formerly in the downtown-based West Precinct. But it did not receive new officers to cover them; those who had patrolled these beats stayed in their original precincts.

The result: Southeast Seattle’s police got spread thin, even as its crime count soared. In 2007, it and West Seattle (which has a slightly larger population) reported a similar number of serious crimes, about 4,200. In 2008, with more turf but without more officers, the Southeast precinct suffered 5,822 crimes and the West Seattle precinct just 3,194. This disparity moderated somewhat after that, but continued.

You need only cruise Rainier Avenue and surrounding blocks, with their missing sidewalks and scanty crosswalks, to see the disparity in the way the city treats pedestrians and motorists here and in other districts. Traffic circles have proliferated like dust bunnies in Wallingford, Capitol Hill, and other neighborhoods to the north, but good luck trying to get one in the lower Rainier Valley. I did, at an intersection one block off Rainier that’s commonly used as an engine-gunning turnaround and cutover to Seward Park. The city would only proivide traffic circles at intersections where collisions had already occurred. Neighbors had seen several crashes there, including one in which a pickup smashed so hard into a small car carrying a mom and young child that they got out, sat on the curb awhile to recover — and then got in their battered car and drove off.

Sorry, said the Seattle Transportation Department’s traffic-circle coordinator— accidents must be reported to the police to count. None of the crashes at that crossing had. I passed that along to the neighbors, and at the next hit-and-run, one called the police. Were you involved in the accident? they asked. No, he replied. They declined to take the report. Catch 22.

I recounted this to the sympathetic traffic-circle official, noting the implicit discrimination: In a lower-income neighborhood, more drivers have issues with the law and fewer have insurance, and so fewer are likely to report accidents. She agreed but said she couldn’t do anything about it; that was the rule.

Southeast citizens who feel aggrieved at such disparities can of course seek to correct them at the polls. They can vote, and persuade their neighbors to vote, for candidates who promise more equitable treatment (or who at least know where Hillman City and Brighton Beach are). But even here they’ll find themselves at a disadvantage.

Despite the nominal switch to all-mail voting, only about two-thirds of local voters actually exercise their franchise via the U.S. Postal Service. The other third vote at special handicapped polling stations or drop their ballots off there or at other drop-off boxes provided countywide by the King County Elections Department. Perhaps they don’t trust the post office, or they wait till the last minute and then fear they’ve missed the mail, or maybe they just miss the communal ritual of flocking to the polls on election day. It’s not just about saving 44 cents: King County elections director Sherril Huff says many people stamp their ballots before dropping them off at the county stations rather the mail. Her department ought to ask the Post Service to credit these against all the unstamped ballots that get dropped in the mail, which the county then pays to have delivered.

For the election just finished, King County offered 19 drop-off sites, several of which were mobile vans and four of which also including accessible voting stations. Of these, seven were in Seattle. Two were downtown (the county administration building and Union Station) and one was at West Seattle Stadium. Four were north of the Ship Canal, at the University of Washington, North Seattle Community College, Magnuson Park, and the Ballard Library. None was in Southeast Seattle or in the Central District, Capitol Hill, or other central neighborhoods just to the north.

Proportionality by population doesn’t explain this disparity: Southeast Seattle has about 81,000 residents and those likewise unserved central neighborhoods have about 90,000 — together, more than a quarter of the city’s total. West Seattle has about 90,000. The area north of the Ship Canal, with four stations, has about 245,000.

Elections director Huff explains that this allocation has resulted from trial and error: Since 2008, her department has experimented with various deployments and found that “some sites just don’t have the volume.” But there’s a feedback loop to such logic: Poor people don’t vote in the same numbers as the better off, so they don’t get as many places to vote, which ensures that they continue not to vote. It’s a bit like the old watchword, black people don’t swim — so don’t give them pools or swimming lessons. Whaddaya know? Seattle Parks & Recreation operates one swimming pool (currently closed for renovation) in all Southeast Seattle — and one each in the closely clustered neighborhoods of Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard, and Greenlake, plus two more in the North End.

And the elections department didn’t try very hard or long to establish a drop-off site in Southeast Seattle. It offered one in just two of the past 17 elections, in 2009, when it deployed drop boxes to the Southeast Neighborhood Service Center, just north of Columbia City, and to the city’s five other neighborhood service centers. Since then, says Huff, her office has learned to allocate drop sites more strategically. As a guide, she explains, “we’ve adopted the Regional Planning Council’s urban centers.”

Wait — Magnuson Park is an “urban center”? “It’s a good location,” says Huff. “We were worried it would not be heavily used, but it is.”

Huff herself is hardly ignorant of or insensitive to circumstances in Southeast Seattle; she lives in Upper Rainier Beach. But when I pointed out the dearth of voting sites there, she pointed out that the county does provide the chance to vote at the Renton and Burien city halls and at a “southeast county destination,” the Tahoma School District in Maple Valley.

Those sites are, respectively, eight, nine, and 21 miles from Columbia City.

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