In November, Seattle voters will decide whether to fundamentally change the way the city’s nine councilmembers are elected. They’ll be asked to decide on Charter Amendment 19, which proposes to transform Seattle’s current at-large election system to a hybrid of at-large and district elections.
Currently, all nine city councilmembers are decided by every voting resident of Seattle. Charter Amendment 19 would create seven districts throughout the city. Each district would elect a different councilmember. The remaining two positions would still be voted on at-large.
Proponents of Charter Amendment 19 say it would modernize Seattle’s elections. They say that of the 50 largest cities in the United States, Seattle is one of three that uses an exclusively at-large system.
The districts would each hold about 88,000 residents, said Eugene Wasserman, campaign coordinator of Seattle Districts Now, the organization that brought forth the proposal in June by gathering signatures required to get the proposal onto the ballot.
Seattle Districts Now claims the change will lower campaign costs and make councilmembers more accessible and accountable to residents because they will be relying on fewer votes to get elected. At present, more than 600,000 people are represented in at-large elections.
“It will make a much better city government,” Wasserman said of the proposal.
One organization does not agree.
“As soon as I read [Charter Amendment 19] I said, ‘Oh, boy, here we go again’ and scrambled to find other people [who were opposed],” said Marjorie Rhodes, chair of Choices Not Districts, which is against Charter Amendment 19. This is Rhodes’ third time fighting district elections in Seattle, she said.
Similar legislation regarding districting was brought forth and shot down by Seattle voters in 1975, 1995 and 2003, according to the Seattle Voter’s Guide. Rhodes said district elections would increase campaign costs and create a lack of access to candidates, because each Seattle resident would only be able to vote for three, rather than nine, councilmembers.
Both sides use San Francisco as an example to support their claims.
Seattle Districts Now, citing the voter’s guide for San Francisco, says that when San Francisco made the transition to district elections, the average city council campaign cost dropped from $188,000 to about $74,000.
Choices Not Districts says the opposite is true. The group argues that campaigning within districts has increased the cost to San Francisco city councilmembers running for re-election. Rhodes’ information comes from a 2012 press release from the San Francisco Ethics Commission, which raised the individual expenditure ceiling in San Francisco’s first and seventh districts.
Both sides also claim the other is bad news for non-incumbent candidates. Wasserman said that under district elections, new candidates would have a better chance opposing incumbents using grassroots campaigning within neighborhoods familiar to them.
Rhodes, in contrast, said district elections would eventually result in more people running without opposition. In the past eight years, a little more than half of the King County Council district races have seen an incumbent run unopposed, according to Choices Not Districts.
The proposed districts were developed by a University of Washington professor and could be changed every 10 years by a government committee. The districting map is available on the Seattle Districts Now website and divides the city into neighborhood conglomerates. For instance, District 3 would stretch east of I-5 toward the water and would run north to south from Montlake to Mt. Baker.
District 6 would encompass Crown Hill, Ballard, Fremont and Green Lake.
Rhodes said dividing voters into district provides an opportunity to manipulate elections or give an unfair advantage to a single candidate.
“Even with good intentions, you cannot avoid gerrymandering with districting,” she said. “The two go hand-in-hand.”
If approved, district elections would take a couple of years to fully implement. The five city councilmembers not being voted on this election would complete their term, ending in 2015. The remaining four to be elected in November would serve two-year terms, also ending in 2015.
Beginning that year, seven of the city councilmembers would be elected by district and serve a standard term of four years. The two elected at-large councilmembers would serve a two-year term, and those at-large candidates voted in during the 2017 election cycle would begin serving four-year terms.
If Proposition 1, a measure to publically finance city council campaigns, is approved, it would apply only to councilmembers running at-large; those running through a district election would not be eligible for the program.