Voters have city leaders on notice: No business as usual

Written by Dick Morrill with assistance from Benjamin Anderstone

Although they’re normally a sedate affair, off-year elections occasionally prove noteworthy on substance. The 2013 election was such a year: for what it was lacking in turnout, it made up in electoral significance that will help shape the city's politics for years to come.

To recall: Seattle voters introduced districted City Council elections, ejected an incumbent mayor and elected a self-avowed socialist to the Council over a long-term incumbent. These results were seen — accurately — as a small revolt against “business as usual.” But what does this really mean?

We examined the geographical pattern of votes in 2013, to uncover how different areas of Seattle, and different groups of its citizens, voted. To accomplish this, we examined election results at two different levels — precincts (see this previous article), and – here – districts.  

How did Seattle vote? A look by districts

We begin with a table profiling the districts by demographic characteristics and their voting in the 2013 election (Table 1). District 1 includes West Seattle and South Park; District 2, Southeast Seattle; District 3, Capitol Hill-Montlake-Central Area; District 4 University District-Wallingford; District 5 Northgate-Broadview-Haller Lake-Lake City; District 6 Ballard-Fremont-Green Lake; District 7 Queen Anne-Magnolia-Downtown. (For a map of the districts, click here.)

The strongest support for district elections of council members was not from areas farthest from Downtown, which are often pitched as marginalized in City politics, but rather from two highly urban districts, the 3rd (Capitol Hill-South Lake Union) and 6 (Ballard-Greenlake). These districts were the best results for Kshama Sawant, same-sex marriage, and other progressive issues. The smallest victory for districted elections (still a healthy 62.5%) was in the 7th covering Queen Anne and Magnolia. The 7th also gave Ed Murray and Richard Conlin their best showings.  There isn’t a clear demographic reason for this showing; it may relate to the 7th's greater share of affluent professionals filling those downtown offices and banks.  At least in the case of districted elections, though, these distinctions are marginal: Districting was very popular throughout the City.

There were some surprises in Mayor-elect Ed Murray’s win. The strongest support for Murray was not from the 3rd or 4th (University District-Wallingford), the districts containing much of the 43rd Legislative District, which Murray long represented in the Legislature. Rather, they were from the Magnolia-Queen Anne’s 7 and the 1st, which covers West Seattle. Murray struggled most in the 2nd (Southeast Seattle), which is Seattle’s only majority-minority district, and its least affluent, as well as the 6th, McGinn’s home turf and home to North Seattle’s most progressive neighborhoods.

The vote for Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant is fascinating, as well. The 7th is again the establishment outlier with strong support for incumbent Conlin, along with the West Seattle-based 1st; in north Seattle, 4th and 5th split. The 3rd, home for both Conlin (of Madrona) and Sawant (of Capitol Hill), had the strongest showing for Sawant, again followed by the progressive 6th, despite the district’s affluence and high education. By contrast, the fairly modest vote for Sawant in the 4th, home of UW, is a little surprising.

The vote for Mike O’Brien looks remarkably like a standard liberal/conservative race in Seattle, with strong support from the “leftish” 3 and 6, and lowest support from the 1st and 7th. The fact that O’Brien is from the 6th may help explain why he did better to the north than in the traditionally Democratic 2nd. Alternatively, this may suggest that O’Brien did best with high-income, high-education progressives – perhaps a great example of his own politics and demographics?

Support for Proposition 1 (public campaign finance) had the same relative pattern as support for districts, but at a lower level. Only four districts showed Prop. 1 majority support — 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th. The measure was unable to gain a majority elsewhere, consistently underperforming districted elections, Mike O’Brien, and other progressive-correlated causes. Prop. 1's failure may be an indicator that eternally cautious Seattleites want reform, but want confidence in the process.

Support for Initiative 522 (GMO labeling) was, not surprisingly, high in Seattle, despite the proposition's loss statewide. Support for the measure was high in the 3rd and 6th, no surprise considering the districts’ liberal profiles. However, the highest showing came in District 2, which includes the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill. This suggests that areas with young, single voters were most positive, and home-owning areas the least, with weak results in the 1st (West Seattle) and 5th (far north Seattle).

A look at demographics

We students of elections love to try to explain the geographic variation in voting by related variation in demographic characteristics. Without exit poll data on individuals, we use riskier “ecological” correlation using the average characteristics of census tracts. At least we can discover likely relationships. In the case of the Seattle 2013 contests, the relationships are meaningful but not very robust, as our demographic variables do not convincingly explain all votes.

The votes for the Districts measure, Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien and Proposition 1 do have a common pattern. Support correlates most strongly with tract shares of unmarried partners, those 20-34, transit use and renting, all characteristics of close-in, very urban populations, with high levels of commuting to Downtown and the University District. In more vivid terms, one might imagine these voters tend to be young idealists, more open to change and skeptical of the status quo.

Conversely, negative correlations exist between the aforementioned candidates and the presence of married couples, home ownership and high incomes. This all makes sense for Proposition 1, Sawant, and O’Brien, but is a bit counter-intuitive for Districts. We might have expected stronger support from the home-owning neighborhoods resisting downtown-oriented, new urbanist policies. Instead, some new urbanist neighborhoods are the most supportive, suggesting instead that idealists and change-seekers put great stake in the possibilities of electing younger, more openminded or radical candidates.

What missing variable might account for this? Very likely it is the very understandable reaction of the young to excessive inequality, the dearth of middle-class jobs and the over-concentration of wealth and power that is the basis for strong support for both districts and for Sawant. And we should recognize the seeming strong influence of the Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger, and its endorsement of Sawant and of districts and its overt addressing of inequality.

Mayor-Elect Ed Murray’s votes had an inverse correlation with these “idealistic” voters, and there were instead positive correlations for Murray with husband-wife families, with whites, professionals and high-income areas. Murray performed poorly with youth and unmarried partners. Here we see a bit of a contradiction, though: The most change-friendly voters in the mayor’s race — the ones wanting to toss incumbent Mike McGinn — were the least change-friendly on City Council, Districts, and Proposition 1. Murray is in all honesty a liberal and a candidate  of change, certainly as viewed at a state or national scale. It is only in the context of this odd election that he appears relatively “conservative." (Murray’s victory may have been, in part, because of an over-performance among the sort of socially liberal voters The Stranger caters to, owing to Murray’s strong support from the LGBT community).

Nonetheless, with the exception of Murray’s win, the votes suggest that 2013 can be framed as a rejection of inequality. Why didn’t this topple Murray? Put simply, McGinn may not have been seen as trustworthy in addressing these problems. This is a strong warning to Mayor Murray, and indeed all candidates and causes on future ballots: It can no longer be business as usual.

Enjoyed this story? You might also like:

"Seattle as liberal bastion? Think again" by Benjamin Anderstone.

"Meet the Districts" by Knute Berger and Benjamin Anderstone.

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