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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