District elections: Is a city divided stronger or weaker?

Seattle voters will decide whether to upend the current system of electing city council members.
Seattle City Hall

Seattle City Hall Flickr user earthtoandy

An initiative on this year's ballot would make fundamental changes, for better or worse, in the longstanding way that Seattle elects city council members.

If voters approve Charter Amendment 19 this November, then beginning in 2015 seven of nine council members would be elected in district-based elections, while the remaining two council members would be elected "at large" by voters across the city. Under Seattle’s current system, voters choose all nine council members in citywide elections. Each of the proposed districts has about 88,000 residents.

The campaign supporting the initiative is mostly financed by a north Seattle commercial real estate owner, but is also backed by a prominent low-income housing advocate. And although a geographer who has worked to fix gerrymandered and racially biased district boundaries in other states drew the map for Charter Amendment 19, a progressive group with concerns about minority representation in city elections has reacted coolly toward the proposal.

Supporters of the district plan say it will make council members more accountable to voters, while also enabling them to know their constituents' concerns in detail. And they say that reducing the number of constituents a council member represents will lower campaign costs, leveling the playing field for underfunded grassroots candidates.

Opponents question the need for the change and worry that councilmembers elected by district would put their constituents’ priorities in front of citywide needs. And they say that the power of incumbency could become even stronger with district elections, pointing to the lack of turnover in recent years on the King County Council where all seats are filled by district.

The only other cities, among the 50 largest in the U.S., that do not elect at least some of their council members by district are Portland, Oregon and Columbus, Ohio.

Seattle's at large council election system grew, in part, out of populist era reforms in the early 1900s and a desire to restrain partisan politics. District election opponents are quick to cite examples of the bad old days of political machines and ward politics in cities like Chicago. But recent research has shown that district systems tend to improve minority representation in city governments and may be less prone to political chicanery than once thought. Those outcomes, however, can vary between cities and also depend largely on how district boundaries are drawn.

Faye Garneau, a commercial real estate owner, has provided the lion’s share of the money for Seattle Districts Now, the group pushing for Charter Amendment 19. Garneau provided $232,446 of the group’s $254,814 in total contributions, according to campaign finance reports filed on Oct. 16. The group opposing the measure, Choices Not Districts, has reported $967 of contributions.

Garneau, who is also president of the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association, is a lifelong Seattle resident and says she grew up in “Garlic Gulch” — an old nickname for a once heavily Italian community in south Seattle’s Rainier Valley. She says council members are overwhelmed trying to represent the entire city and don’t know enough about neighborhood-level problems. “They’re so overburdened with minutia, they stay downtown where they’re comfortable in their offices,” she says. “For a council member who’s now serving 600,000 people, for them to know the needs of every little neighborhood and community group in the city is pretty darn difficult.”

Charles Blagley, a retired doctor, who has lived in Queen Anne for 40-years, opposes Charter Amendment 19. On a Tuesday night in mid-October, he was at the City Club’s One Stop Ballot Shop at Seattle Center, handing out photocopied flyers that outlined Choices Not Districts’ critique of the measure. “It divides the city from one city into seven different districts,” Blagley says. He adds that a district election system would cause members to approach the council’s business from the perspective of: “What’s in it for my district? What’s in it for me?”

A 2012 study that examined 47,000 city council votes over a seven-year period in Los Angeles, found that this wasn’t the case, at least among that city’s council members. Instead, researchers concluded that a “district-based electoral system does not always incentivize elected officials to ignore the larger concerns of their polity when creating policy.”


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 7:28 a.m. Inappropriate


This change would amount to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

Indeed, why should the legislative body of Seattle even be comprised of directly-elected and accountable people? The trend around here is to do away with voting for and against municipal legislators – it seems to be an antique notion.

The Seattle Popular Monorail Authority had an appointive board. Sound Transit has an appointive board. That is the wave of the future, right?

Ask the government heads (none of whom are quoted in this piece). They know this whole concept of local elections is misguided. It in fact goes against their more current approaches to determining how municipal policy-setters get in to office.

Why not just let the King County Executive appoint all of Seattle’s councilmembers? That would be better in our fast-paced modern world. The King County Executive already appoints more than half of Sound Transit’s boardmembers. Why shouldn’t he (or she) appoint people to the Seattle city council as well?

The city council's powers are set out in state law, as are the powers of Sound Transit’s board. Moreover, Seattle’s councilmembers just administer and set new legal policies – that’s exactly what Sound Transit's boardmembers do.

We should get rid of peoples’ power to vote for and against city legislators. The state legislature saw fit to ensure a supermajority of Sound Transit’s boardmembers always would be political appointees. Everybody at Crosscut thinks Sound Transit is awesome. That’s what Seattle should have as well – legislators who are political appointees!

crossrip

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

"The Seattle Popular Monorail Authority had an appointive board." Yes, for 7 out of 9; 2 were elected.

"We should get rid of peoples’ power to vote..." Are you serious? You are proposing total abandonment of our democracy to oligarchy.

louploup

Posted Sat, Oct 26, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

You missed the "dry", "rye", "ironic", "sarcasm" of the comment.

The only serious point is that made by the commenter was the compare and contrast angle of what was written by Cross-rip. Louploup, you are rightly appauled by an unrepresentative appointed taxing and policy government for Seattle. Why not the same outrage at Sound Transit or the (now defunct) Seattle Popular Monorail Authority. The Seattle electorate is not consistent.

Posted Mon, Oct 28, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't like the unaccountable nature of ST, but I stopped reading crossrip's endless posts on the matter long ago. I have not focused my energy on advocacy for or against ST; I'm not in a position to do much about it. If you go to http://crosscut.com/2013/10/28/elections/117154/seattle-elections-council-district-light-rail/ and read my Mon, Oct 28, 2:44 p.m. comment you'll know some of the reasons why I'm not. Currently I'm focused on changing the system enough to get some city council members elected in Seattle who can articulate the questions I pose there articulately, loudly, and repeatedly. Making all public agencies as transparent and accountable as possible is one of my goals. But I'm just one activist.

I do not believe the monorail authority was an inherently bad project (I voted for it), nor do I believe rail transit is an inherently bad way to move people around. I don't care what technology we use so long as it's a system that works and is affordable is put into place. (It doesn't help that we have the single worst tax structure in the U.S., with Eyman as topping.) In the meantime, I live in Fremont and see a dysfunctional mass transit system for the entire area NW of me (it's fair to OK in some directions from Fremont), and have to live with a bike system that really sucks in many ways (although signs of improvement are in the air--I'm off soon to the 5 - 7 open house on Westlake Track at BF Day).

I was conscious of crossrip's irony, but ignored it; it seems to me to be an ineffective debating strategy to mix irony with straight ahead argument. One or the other at a time please.

louploup

Posted Sun, Oct 27, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Can't blame "the electorate" for Sound Transit -- the abusive financing plan that oligarchy would impose wasn't disclosed before the vote on the ST2 proposition. Moreover, its material terms remain hidden deep in the silo.

This "blame the voters" meme is smokescreen no. 1 Sound Transit's apologists deploy.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

You are proposing total abandonment of our democracy to oligarchy.

You say that as if it would be a bad thing. Sound Transit 100% is an oligarchy, and everyone here couldn't be happier with it.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Bad or not, it would certainly be contrary to the form of government envisioned by the U.S. and state constitutions. IMO, oligarchic governance is anti-democratic and should be rectified whenever and wherever possible.

louploup

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Those who have come to know crossrip, recognize a Modest Proposal, if ever there was one!

afreeman

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article on districts. Very balanced.

ddmiller

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree. As is Knute's story today that describes the election of a slew of neighborhood-oriented councilmembers, which in Seattle's history has happened more than once— the time Knute writes of, the newly elected stood on neighborhood shoulders and created the Seattle P-Patch.

I too was offended when on orders I called long ago to lobby a KC councilmember and the person answering the phone asked if I was a "constituent." On the other hand, at another time and on a different mission, I had no trouble getting an appointment with a KC councilmember even though a non-constituent.

Nevertheless, in my extended period of naivete´when I voted solely by name familarlity, I too thought city-wide representation an "advance" over east-coast style wards and even argued against districts even in the midst of losing that naivete.´ As I recall, Jim Street likes to think of himself as the Father of District Neighborhood Councils, so even during his time the disparity was apparent between a Seattle constituent and that of all of its surrounding cities and towns—many of which have less population than my Seattle neighborhood. I agree with John Fox about Street's chances today, also those of Virginia Galle, Sherry Harris (a northend minority) or Charlie Chong (a West Seattle minority). Interesting too how the neighborhood-oriented who lost subsequent elections were removed from office.

In contrast, we have the history of our current Attorney General, who started a political career on his success at doorbelling the bulk of his district. The AG before him too, for all that I know, at least he had that means available.

Time to take a reasonable chance on a change for the better.

afreeman

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Crossrip, Seattle is a separate political subdivision than King County. Having King County appoint Seattle's council members makes about as much sense as letting Congress appoint governors and state legislators.

I think geographic representation is a great idea. It lets the neighborhoods work together to keep from being the dumping ground for the city's social problems or to ensure more equitable distribution of bike lanes and park improvements.

talisker

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle is a separate political subdivision than King County. Having King County appoint Seattle's council members makes about as much sense as letting Congress appoint governors and state legislators.

I truly don't understand the point you are trying to make here. Sound Transit is a municipality that is completely independent of King County, and the King County Executive appoints over half of the individuals comprising Sound Transit's board. I'm sure you're not arguing Sound Transit's board should be directly-elected.

Everybody reading Crosscut thinks Sound Transit's appointive-board structure is beyond excellent. Sound Transit's board was set up that way by no less than Gary Locke, Maria Cantwell, Dwight Peltz and a number of other democratic luminaries -- they were the sponsors of the 1992 regional transit authority enabling legislation bill. With a pedigree like that and what we've seen out of Sound Transit's board, it's obvious Seattle's legislature should evolve and become like Sound Transit's (an appointive board, controlled by appointees of the King County Executive). We could have a "success breeding success" situation.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

If what you are saying is representative government doesn't work we get it in spades! Perhaps we should do away with County, State and Federal districts, too. I mean, what the heck...

giorgio

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I voted for districts, but I have very low expectations. The problems here are not so much with government form, but with a lazy media and a distracted, uninvolved, uninformed electorate. The corrupt "progressives" who run the show in these parts play the system like a fiddle, which makes sense seeing as how they created it.

So, we'll have districts, but the city council is still going to be hand picked, bought, and paid for by the same insiders who own the current group.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Oct 26, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Notfan, I disagree. This electorate votes to tax themselves liberally for affordable housing, families and eduction, libraries (this should be funded from general tax revenue, not a special levy, and prioritized against everything else), public schools (no matter how poor the results with the dollare already provided this electorate wants to provide more money so they can get the same poor results on a grander scale), and transportation (see libraries). I don't think a single precinct in Seattle has gone for a Republican for President since George H.W. Bush (41 not 43).

This electorate is getting exactly what they want and value in Seattle elected officials. It is not a "progressive elite" running roughshood over an electorate with different priorities, but that is disengaged. It is a group of elected officials reflecting a post-modern, progressive, liberal electorate. You would be hard-pressed to produce a poll of City of Seattle Residents that diverges from the preferences of the their elected officials.

I disagree with many of the policies and decisions in this City, but I acknowledge that they reflect the views of my fellow citizens pretty well. It is not a problem of the out of touch politicians in this town, but the people who elect them.

Posted Sat, Nov 2, 11:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I find it hard to disagree, although I'd suggest there's more "disengagement" than true congruence of views.

NotFan

Posted Sun, Oct 27, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Why look -- same screen name, same lame dissembling meme.

The blame for the abusive state/local taxing regime centered in Seattle does not lie with "the electorate", nor do our "fellow citizens" deserve the excessive regressive taxing the government heads impose here.

Likewise, the votes on transportation issues -- particularly the propositions Sound Transit's board promulgates -- in no way amount to people taxing themselves. The abusive financing plan wasn't disclosed before the vote on the ST2 proposition and its material terms remain hidden deep in the silo.

As noted above, this "blame the voters" meme is smokescreen no. 1 Sound Transit's apologists deploy. We now are treated here to their second-favorite dissembling propaganda line in the above posting as well. That municipality's propagandists like to insinuate that the abusive, excessive taxing scheme Sound Transit's appointive board is putting into place is as modest as the property tax hikes for libraries or the SHA. In fact it is orders of magnitude worse for individuals and households of modest means, and unlike those other measures the Sound Transit regressive tax confiscations are to last for decades.

Whoever is behind this "realpolitik" screen name is a real piece of work . . ..

crossrip

Posted Sun, Oct 27, 1:25 p.m. Inappropriate

... and yet the voters of Seattle vote for the very politicians that support these polices. The politicians that don't support such policies, don't survive the primary. The ACTIONS of Seattle voters betray their prioriites (which I often find myself in disagreement with).

It is no accident that there is no daylight between Murray and McGinn on matters of policy substance and that the compaign is being fought on who has the best "style". It is so because that is what Seattle voters chose and continue to choose(much to my dislike).

Posted Sun, Oct 27, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

and yet the voters of Seattle vote for the very politicians that support these polices.

There it is again: improperly blaming voters. The "voters of Seattle" are not responsible for the local laws -- including the tax imposition laws -- Sound Transit's board sets. Seattle voters didn't vote them on to that board.

Everyone gets this, right? The propagandist tries to deflect blame and attribute Sound Transit's policies to Seattle voters despite the fact that neither they nor any other group of voters are responsible for either the composition of that board or how it wields its heavy regressive taxing powers.

crossrip

Posted Mon, Oct 28, 6:56 a.m. Inappropriate

.. As far as Olympia has gone with public policy, poll after poll shows Seattle Voters would like to go farther. The Seattle legislators from wholy in Seattle Districts were some of the leaders in voting for Sound Transit as it today and writing the legislation that sets its governing structure. Nothing gets a vote in the House unless Frank Chopp allows it. The same was true of Murray and the Senate until recently. The voters of Seattle often want to tax and regulate beyond what the RCW allows.

As several Crosscut writers have noted, they want a liberal utopia. They have high trust in elected and un-elected officials to do the "right" thing.

So how can you not blame the voters of Seattle? The politicians they elect back the policies you rail against and when there is an opportunity to replace them, you get an ideological twin that wants more un-elected people to do more studies and planning and then implement some utopian Bike, Transit, Homeless-ending, violence stopping plan based on "best practices".

The fact that we don't replace them with something different says it all. "If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice." - Rush

Posted Mon, Oct 28, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate


As far as Olympia has gone with public policy, poll after poll shows Seattle Voters would like to go farther.

Olympia gave us the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, and once the public became aware of its abusive financing plan we didn't want it "going further", we shot it down.

Post a link to those polls. Nothing else you've posted is correct, let's see how good you are at analyzing polls.

crossrip

Posted Sun, Nov 3, 11:35 p.m. Inappropriate

crossrip, I think it's hard to deny that Seattle is lacking in voter engagement. I've lived in lots of places, and the disengagement of the voters here is as bad as I've seen anywhere.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

District Elections is a good idea whose time has come.

I voted for District Elections, and I hope it passes.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Oct 25, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I think it may have a benefit of more emphasis on neighborhood issues - hopefully.

Lily32

Posted Sun, Nov 3, 11:37 p.m. Inappropriate

We'll see. It could just as easily lead to the hijacking of district elections by the same interest groups and lobbies that have hijacked city-wide elections. Don't get your hopes up too high.

NotFan

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