Community & Editorial
Want more accountability from city councilmembers? Support a charter amendment to elect by district
With a population of more than 630,000, Seattle is the 22nd largest city in the country, but it’s one of only three large American cities where voters still elect each councilmember in at-large races. It’s a faulty system. Our nine councilmembers overlook the needs of neighborhoods, small businesses, and racial and ethnic communities.
In November, Seattle voters will have a chance to rectify that. A “yes” vote on Charter Amendment No. 19 will allow us to elect seven councilmembers by district and two at-large, a system that will make the city councilmembers more accountable to the people who put them in office. It will also mean our city council races will no longer be relics of a less democratic era.
Throughout the 20th century, corruption in city politics was gradually reduced, while the population of America’s cities, buoyed by immigration and movement from rural areas, exploded. In 1910 there were eight cities with more than 500,000 people; by 1950 there were 18 (Seattle was 19th with 468,000). Today there are 34.
As cities grew, they also experienced great pressure to become more democratic. Large majorities of urban working people knew, from lessons taught by the nation’s founders, that district elections for legislative representatives are more democratic than at-large elections. In response to this pressure, U.S. cities have for at least 60 years been moving from at-large councils to district elections or a mixed system of at-large and district seats.
In 1950 less than 40 percent of the 34 largest U.S. cities elected their councilmembers by district. By 1970 the proportion jumped to 82 percent. Today only three large cities still use at-large elections: Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.
Charter Amendment 19 will move Seattle more in line with the majority of large U.S. cities by creating a mixed system, where a city councilmember will hold either one of seven district seats or two at-large seats.
This carefully crafted measure will allow for a rapid transition to a mixed system. With a district map already drawn by an experienced demographer and the shortening of some at-large terms to two years, implementation can begin in the next municipal election, November 2015. All nine positions would be on the ballot in that election. In following years, the at-large positions would alternate with the district positions.
Since candidates and incumbents in district races will only have to represent 90,000 constituents and not the entire city, politicians will have to be more responsive to the needs of voters and residents of their districts. In addition, candidates running for a district seat must live in that district for at least four months before the June filing period.
Money is, of course, important in elections, but in a mixed system money wields less power.
Council elections based on districts cost less than at-large elections, where the winner is usually the candidate who can afford the most mailers and TV ads.
Our city council elections are important. One of the council’s major roles is allocation of funds: to fix roads, repair bridges, keep libraries open, build community centers, create and support transit systems, provide social services, support low-income housing, and maintain parks. The council also has the power to determine how the city exercises its taxing authority to generate money to pay for these services. Electing seven councilmembers by district means money allocation and bonding capacity will more likely reflect the priorities of all corners of this great city.
Today, we don’t have a system that allows us to hold individual councilmembers accountable and ensure city government treats our communities fairly. A mixed system, one with seven district-based and two at-large councilmembers, will ensure improved representation for all communities.
Vote “yes” on Charter Amendment
No. 19. Make Seattle’s political future more democratic.
CommentsIf you read the Time (a reactionary rag) you will find that the Powers that Be are in a snit abou this proposal - that fact alone makes me favor the bill
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