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Time for district elections for the city council?

The city council districts.

The perennial question about how we elect city councilmembers in Seattle (at-large, or by-district?) is back again. I have struggled with this question many times. When I lived in San Francisco I voted for a charter amendment to change the election of the Board of Supervisors from at-large to district. I later regretted that decision, as politics got even stranger in a city that already seemed to make it an art form. Because of that experience I haven’t supported district elections here in my hometown of Seattle, even though it might have made my run for city council more enjoyable.

As I look back to the San Francisco of today, and think more about Seattle’s city government, I am reconsidering district elections.

Changing governance should generally be done to improve representation of, and access to, the political process. Governance changes should not be done to accomplish a particular agenda, to be more efficient, or to get a particular result. Democracy is by its nature inefficient and most of us get results we don’t like on a semi-regular basis – if we’re lucky!

So what are the pluses and minuses to moving the current structure of nine at-large Seattle City Council seats to pure districts or a blend of at-large and districts?

On the plus side for districts is that they would lower the main barrier to candidacy, money. A candidate can doorbell and meet neighbors at the local supermarkets far easier than a candidate running citywide. Talk to any state representative and they will know off the top of their head how many doors they have visited. This is far more rewarding than dialing for dollars to spend on glossy mailers that most of us don’t read.

On the minus side, electing councilmembers by district creates a smaller focus for the candidate. The issues they will be most concerned with will be specific to the district, with some exceptions. It will be even more challenging than it is now to locate regional facilities in the city that have negative externalities, real or perceived. Many also fear that more NIMBY-like districts will hamstring the ability of the city to develop the kind of density that is needed to focus growth in the urban areas. This history of district elections also suggests that, once elected, these councilmembers are more difficult to dislodge.

Some hope (or fear) that the shift to district elections would strengthen the office of the mayor, since with all nine councilmembers elected citywdie, we have in effect a 10-mayor system of government, with mayors and wannabe mayors tripping over themselves. Seattle has never really resolved whether it is a strong-mayor or strong-council system. Changing to district elections could be very clarifying: we'd be a strong-mayor city.

How about the pluses and minuses of the current system?

On the plus side, everyone can vote for all councilmembers. At-large councilmembers focus on issue and policy discussions rather than those defined by geography. Their charge is to represent the whole city and focus regional facilities and transportation investments where they are most appropriate. Of course, there are many different views on whether this is actually accomplished.

On the minus side of the at-large system: there is no one particular councilmember who is accountable to your neighborhood. All nine are accountable to you, so in effect, none really is. Minority candidates have a tougher time getting elected than they would in a majority-minority district.  Because it is complex and expensive to be a candidate in this system, greater power is given to consultants and well-heeled special interests come election time.

I know from personal experience when I ran for council in 2009 that a candidate’s life is spent meeting with the King County Labor Council, the various legislative district groups, rental housing associations, Cascade Bicycle Club, the Chamber, the Downtown Seattle Association, the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Firefighters and Police Unions, and many others. After the phone calls, the meetings, and the questionaires, there is very little time for one-on-one conversations with voters in your community. It must be said that all of these groups also represent voters and will always be important to the development of a candidate. But because the average person is not part of these processes, it is easy to see how the process itself breeds distrust in the system.

Hence the long-running debate in Seattle. Some say NIMBYs would run rampant and shut down the city’s ability to do anything. Others say the current system is controlled by a Liberal Elite that only shows concern for developers and moneyed interests who provide the fuel for elections.

We keep trying to curtail the role of money in local elections, a kind of whack-a-mole effort. The council has just passed Councilman Mike O’Brien’s bill to limit carry-over funding from one election to the next. The problem with the finance reforms put in place over the years is that they make it even harder for an individual to enter the process without hiring one of the small number (about five) of political consultants specializing in the arcane process.

Clearly, district elections would help to simplify the process and provide a counterbalance to the influence of money without having to enact complicated legislation every few years.

The current proposal to create a hybrid district election process is a good way to start the conversation. My main problem with having seven district and two at-large positions is that it is a classic Seattle approach where we “must have it all in one package, please everyone, and create a hopeless muddle.” The at-large positions would instantly believe themselves to be uber-councilmembers, while the district reps would consider them to be pushy bullies.

I have a better idea, an approach that improves access, simplifies the process, allows the citizens to vote for all councilmembers, and provides geographic representation.

It is the same process used to elect Seattle School Board members. I have been happy and unhappy with election results, just like everyone else. But the process does have some clear benefits.

The primary election takes place within the given district. Only those who reside in the district are qualified for the ballot, and only voters in that district vote in that district primary. The top two from each district primary move to the November general election, which is a city-wide ballot. The winner represents their particular district in the legislative body.

We can all speculate how the larger issues in the city will be impacted by a system such as this. Who knows? But that is not the issue. And the current councilmembers are not the issue either. They are all doing their best and trying to make decisions to benefit the future of the city. The issue is really about access and representation — the two fundamental goals of representative democracy.

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