District elections: Is a city divided stronger or weaker?

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

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.”

University of Ohio Professor Vladimir Kogan, one of the two authors of the study, says that when council members push for legislation, they “need to build a council-wide majority, which means you need to build a citywide majority.” But, while this is true for Los Angeles, Kogan and his co-author warn that the study should be replicated in other cities in order to test their results.

Kogan also stresses that “there’s absolutely clear evidence that district elections increase minority participation. Especially when the minority groups are in a geographically compact area.”

While this may be true, Charter Amendment 19 critics have raised concerns about racial equality across the proposed districts — only one of which has a population where the majority of residents are people of color. 

“We were asked for input on the map that was drawn,” says Dana Laurent, Executive Director of Win/Win Network, a coalition of labor and progressive groups that supports district elections, but has not shown any enthusiasm for the plan on the ballot. “We offered an alternative solution that we thought created more fair representation.”

Longtime low-income housing activist John Fox supports Charter Amendment 19 and dismisses suggestions that the seven-district plan is unfair. “I take that as an insult,” he says. “Many of us who support this campaign have dedicated our lives to racial and economic equality in this city.”

Win/Win’s alternative was a nine-district map, which included one district where the minority population is 59 percent and another where it is 70 percent. One of the notable differences about the Win/Win map is that it breaks south Seattle into the three districts — as opposed to two — that include parts of downtown and West Seattle. Boundaries in the northern districts are different from those in the seven-district Charter Amendment 19 map as well.

“Their map would actually do just the opposite of what they’ve been grousing about,” Fox says. “They were simply looking at some sort of numerical representation, reflecting their naiveté.” He added, “I have no doubt, if we had split southeast Seattle in half, people would’ve come unglued.” 

Richard Morrill, who drew the Charter Amendment 19 map, is a professor emeritus in the University of Washington’s Department of Geography and has been drawing district lines for over 30 years. During the 1980s, he was the Special Master assigned to redistrict Congressional and legislative districts in Washington. He has also worked on court-ordered redistricting projects in California and Indiana and redrawn district lines to improve racial fairness in Mississippi.

“I tried various experiments,” he says, referring to the council districts map. “I made plans at five to nine and chose seven to divide Seattle most neatly in the geographic sense.” He adds, “What would happen if you made two minority districts, is that neither one would be guaranteed.”

Blagley, the Choices Not Districts member, is skeptical. “Disadvantaged districts like the one they propose in southeast Seattle will only have one person to look into their concerns,” he says. Blagley also worries that the plan will “entrench incumbents.” He and other Choices Not Districts members cite the number of unopposed council candidates in King County — which uses district elections — as another reason why they don’t want the at large system in Seattle changed. While there is no clear evidence that districts are the reason for the low number of challengers in county-level races, election records do show that 22 of 46 candidates for King County Council have run unopposed, or against write-in candidates since 1999.

Jim Street, a council member from 1983 to 1995 and a former King County Superior Court Judge, also opposes the district plan, saying Seattle is not too big for citywide council races. “You can get to City Hall from any part of the city in 30 minutes,” he says. “I never turned down an invitation to go to any neighborhood.” He says that by electing council members by district, voters would hold less sway over the committee chairs who handle important issues. “If you’re a district resident, you go to your district representative and they say they’re not on that committee,” Street says. “That’s much less effective than going to the land use chair and saying I get to vote for you every four years.” 

Fox, the low-income housing advocate, says Street couldn’t get elected if he ran today because council races have become too expensive. “For a month I’d see him standing on the street corner holding his signs,” he says, remembering one of Street’s early campaigns. “He was a grassroots candidate.”

All of the incumbent council members up for re-election in 2013 have raised more than $100,000 in campaign contributions, according to campaign finance reports. Councilman Richard Conlin, facing a challenge from socialist candidate Kshama Sawant, has raised the most money so far, reporting a total of $219,880 in contributions as of Oct. 14.

Fox and other supporters of the districts initiative say it will drive down campaign finance costs and make it more reasonable for small-time candidates to reach voters. “You can walk a district, you can doorbell a district,” says Garneau. “Everything about it is easier.”

The alliance between Fox and Garneau is somewhat unusual. One of the piques with city government Garneau raised in a recent phone interview is that "there are cases where large commercial pieces of property have been taken off the tax rolls simply to become homes for people who are less fortunate."

"I first met Faye in the late '80s when we were working with residents at a mobile home park off 105th and Aurora and she was opposing our effort," Fox says, adding that they were able to find common ground with the districts initiative. "There’s a mutual concern here. Small business, whether it’s car businesses along Aurora or the businesses out in Fremont or freight haulers, they too have been excluded."

Other notable supporters of the council districts plan include Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association and Suzie Burke, owner of Fremont Dock, a real estate holding company.

Asked if she could name a council member who did an exceptionally good job representing neighborhood interests, Garneau mentions George Benson, who served from 1973 to 1993 and is perhaps best known for his support of the waterfront trolley. According to his 2004 Seattle Times obituary, while the city constructed the downtown bus tunnel during the 1980s, he spent every Friday afternoon walking Third Avenue, talking to business owners who were situated along the “muddy plywood sidewalks.”

“The city has really grown a lot," Garneau says. "It’s not this little Podunk city on the western seaboard. It has become a more difficult job and the amount of knowledge a person needs is just tremendous.”


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