Election Day 2015: Six things to watch in Seattle and statewide

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For an off-year election, there's a lot riding on what voters decide today in Seattle, King County, and Washington state. An historically large tax levy is on the ballot in Seattle, as is new money for children's programs in King County and a new attempt to require a two-thirds majority for state tax increases, which could have enormous implications for the state's finances.

If ballot returns are any indication so far, these decisions will be made by less than half of registered voters. The Elections Division of the Secretary of State's Office is predicting 46 percent turnout of voters, not much better than two years ago (a year in which there were no statewide or congressional contests). But whatever the final turnout, the decisions will reshape the regional political landscape in important ways, particularly in Seattle, where council members will be selected for the first time under a new district system.

As the results arrive, here are six things to watch for this election day.

The State of Seattle's Insurgency

In his race for one of the Seattle City Council’s remaining citywide seats, Tim Burgess has been cast as the conservative in his battle against opponent Jon Grant. But that’s only accurate for those with a pretty strict liberal litmus test. What’s more accurate is to say he is a representative of Seattle’s traditional mainstream, while Grant represents an insurgent in the vein of Kshama Sawant, to whom he's closely tied himself.

Burgess absolutely crushed Grant in fundraising, from sources in the business world, progressive and labor circles, and elsewhere. Take independent spending for Burgess into account, and the race becomes even more imbalanced from a money perspective. No other race comes close on this front. Furthermore, Burgess has not been a weak or over-comfortable candidate. If the vote between the two is close, it’ll be a sign that fundraising prowess is becoming a less reliable barometer of citywide odds in the face of ideological shifts. If Burgess actually loses, it'll be as big a statement on money in local politics as the city's Honest Elections campaign finance initiative.  - D.A.

Facing its Biggest Test: City's Dependence on Property Tax Levies

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If Mayor Ed Murray’s $930 million transportation levy package passes, it will be spun as a continuation of the norm for Seattleites, proof that we’ll say yes to any new property tax. But if it fails, the implications are pretty enormous.

The most obvious fallout is the Seattle Department of Transportation losing about a quarter of its budget for next year, and being forced to shelve many of the department’s big plans. It would also prove the specter of “levy fatigue” is real, with serious implications for how Mayor Ed Murray structures the rest of his term. His office and the city council seem to be committed to passing some kind of transportation levy, and soon. That means either running a revised levy in a special election this spring, as Councilmember Nick Licata suggested the city might, or on the 2016 ballot. Either way, the housing levy the mayor is planning for next year would likely need to shrink, and his office’s plan for a public safety levy would wait for at least another year. - D.K.

Trafficking Endangered Animal Parts: Pro or Con?

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This pangolin's life is in your hands.

All over the world, animals like elephants, leopards, rhinos, and pangolins are killed so their bodies can be trafficked and sold. Put simply, Initiative 1401 outlaws the distribution and sale of endangered animals and their body parts. With this measure, Washington voters can provide a clear indication of whether the majority of them are monsters, indifferent to the suffering and possible extinction of the most threatened animals in God’s creation. We haven't checked the polling, but it's probably a toss up. We're hoping the attached picture of a pangolin will make a difference. – D.A.

The Sawant Slate

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Some say this year’s elections are all about districts. But there is a good argument to be made (as Josh Feit in Publicola has done) that, in fact, this is about whether the pull of Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant is strong enough to pad herself with allies. Whether you see Sawant as a kick in the butt to a snoozy City Council or posturing and conflictive, it’s hard to dispute that she’s changed the dynamics of City Hall.

Currently, Sawant has two reliable allies: Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien. But to really carry out her agenda, she would need at least four partners in crime – enough to make a majority. It’s possible in this election, although not likely. Perhaps you’ve seen the Transit Riders Union posters around town advocating for the “Dream Team” of Sawant, O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, Michael Maddux and Jon Grant. Tammy Morales has recently aligned herself with that crew as well. If all of those people are elected, it is widely acknowledged that City Hall would be a very different place. - D.K.

Seattle May Kickstart National Campaign Finance Efforts

On a number of progressive policies, Washington voters have put the state in the national vanguard. There’s recreational marijuana and gay marriage. In the Seattle area, there’s the $15 minimum wage. Supporters of the Honest Elections initiative hope to add campaign finance to the list. The measure has been supported by a huge amount of out-of-state money, with progressive donors clearly hoping to create a new model for other regions, and some headway on an issue long overdue for national reform. Should it get passed, expect some think pieces about what it could mean for other municipalities, followed by very close scrutiny of its results in coming years.  – D.A.

Win or Lose, Eyman's Initiative will Cause Shockwaves

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Under Initiative 1366, the state sales tax would be cut by a percentage point, from the current 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent. That is, unless lawmakers put forward a constitutional amendment asking voters to impose a two-thirds supermajority requirement on any tax increase enacted by the Legislature. Even under the constitutional amendment, tax increases could still be sent to the public for a majority vote. Initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman says the public wants controls on lawmakers. Opponents say the courts will reject the measure, but it's better to beat it at the ballot box – to prevent a copycat effect where every initiative sponsor tries to punish opponents. - J.C. 

It could be the last dance for Eyman, who has a criminal investigation swirling over his alleged misuse of campaign funds. If so, he's going out with one of the old favorites. Last time Eyman ran an initiative attempting to slap a supermajority requirement on new state taxes was 2012. It passed with 63 of the vote, winning in every county. Only King, Jefferson, and San Juan counties gave it less than 60 percent of the vote. Eyman has been dealt defeat, but never on these sort of initiatives, which he's passed three times, only to have them overturned. Should this year's attempt go down in flames, conservatives will blame the messenger, but those who supported the unsuccessful income tax initiative in 2010 may start dusting off their supporter lists and testing the waters a bit. – D.A.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.