A local group is trying to transform the way Seattle city councilmembers are voted into office. Members of a campaign called Seattle Districts Now are gathering signatures for a petition that proposes electing city councilmembers via a combined at-large and district system.
Proponents of the proposal say Seattle is the only U.S. city with a population of more than 500,000 to elect its nine city councilmembers exclusively at-large.
The difference between voting at-large and by district comes down to location. In the current system, all nine city councilmembers are voted into office by the entire city. District elections would require the division of the city into precincts; each precinct would then be responsible for electing a councilmember.
The Seattle Districts Now motion is a hybrid of at-large and district elections. The group’s “7-2” proposal would divide the city into seven districts. Each district would elect a councilmember; two would still be elected at-large.
The districts would be divided into neighborhood conglomerates. For instance, District Seven would be made up of Magnolia, Queen Anne and the Business District. District Two would span from the edge of Sodo to Rainier Beach.
Eugene Wasserman, campaign coordinator of Seattle Districts Now, believes the 7-2 system would open up the municipal political system to people who may not have the wealth often needed to run. In the 2011 city council elections, elected candidates raised an average of $270,000 each for their campaigns, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Seattle Districts Now asserts that a mixed district/at-large system would cut campaign expenses for contacting voters to one-seventh of the current cost because it would reduce a candidate’s dependency on mailers and TV advertisements.
“With this [7-2 proposal], candidates could doorbell with enough voters to make a difference,” Wasserman said.
He also believes electing city councilmembers by district would ensure local leaders are more accountable to the citizens they represent.
“Districts would only be 70,000 or 80,000 people instead of the whole city. [Councilmembers] would have to interact more with the citizens. And, it would be easier for people to run,” Wasserman said.
This is not the first time a district election system has been proposed to the city. In 2003, an initiative to elect each of the nine councilmembers from a different district was proposed, but it was shot down by voters.
Wasserman said a group of citizens began considering and developing the 7-2 hybrid proposal last spring.
“The opposition has mainly come from ex-city councilmembers,” he said.
But another group, Washington Citizens for Proportional Representation, is trying to nix the 7-2 hybrid idea. Group members believe there could be a better system to elect the city council, but rigid districting is not the answer.
Washington Citizens for Proportional Representation is offering an alternative called “choice voting,” which would allow neighborhood representation only if a majority of the district supports the same candidate. Political minorities could then combine their votes if their preferred candidate is not in their neighborhood, according to the website.
Seattle Districts Now is working on gathering the 40,000 signatures needed to get the 7-2 proposal on the November ballot. The group, which held a kick-off event last month, has garnered about 18 percent of the necessary signatures, said Wasserman.
Wasserman said he is confident they will get the proposal on the ballot.
“We are still early in the signature season,” he said.
If passed, the 2015 election cycle would be the first in which city councilmembers were decided by the hybrid district and at-large system.
Dan Nolte, communications director for the Seattle City Council, said ethics laws prohibit council members from officially weighing in on initiatives such as the 7-2 proposal. The current councilmembers are already fairly spread out throughout the city.