Whatcom commission holds firm on district-only voting

After hearing more than a dozen people speak against having the Whatcom County Council elected by district, rather than countywide, the Charter Review Commission stuck to its guns at its most recent meeting and chose not to reconsider placing district-only voting on the ballot.

Yet another voting method was introduced at the same meeting, on June 8, that would effectively wipe out County Council districts altogether. Commissioners, or possibly voters in the November elections, will have to make sense of all of this as they determine the future of county elections.

Critics of district-only voting often explain it this way: Instead of voting for all seven County Council members, we would have a say on only three of the seats.

“The council as a whole makes decisions which affect me, and I would like the opportunity to vote on the council as a whole,” Deming resident Leslie Sharpe told the commission at the June 8 meeting, held at the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center outside Kendall.

In the current alignment of three districts, two council members come from each district. The seventh, who serves at large, still would be elected countywide under district-only voting.

Proponents of district-only voting, who tend to be conservative, point to the progressive makeup of the current council to show why change is needed. Six of the seven members have been endorsed by Democrats in the past four years, and rural conservatives chalk this up to Bellingham voters’ outsized influence on the election results.

“I would like to see more diversity on the council, and I believe that voting by district would help do that,” said Karl Uppiano, one of two who spoke in favor of district-only voting June 8, compared to 17 against.

After hearing public comments, Commissioner Richard May asked the commission to reconsider its decision from February to put district-only voting on the ballot. May’s motion required two-thirds approval, or 10 commissioners out of 15.

Commissioner Barbara Ryan supported May, given how early district-only voting had been approved and the volume of public comment heard since then.

“I think it’s appropriate that we as a commission demonstrate that we are listening to people. Why have we had meetings ... all over the county ... if we had no intention of adjusting to concerns that have been raised by people in our community?” Ryan said.

The motion to revisit district-only voting failed, 7 to 8, along mostly partisan lines.

Three commissioners introduced a new wrinkle to County Council elections at the same June 8 meeting, a proposal called preferential voting. Instead of voting only for candidates within their districts, voters would rank all the council candidates, and the second-choice votes would be distributed according to certain rules.

The voting method is also called “instant runoff” or “ranked choice” voting, and is explained in the draft charter amendment available online. (Go to whatcomcounty.us and click on “2015 Whatcom County Charter Review Commission,” then “Proposed Amendments,” “Proposed Amendment 19.”)

Pierce County adopted the voting method through the charter review process, used it in 2008, then abandoned it.

“It’s advertised as being simpler, but to the voters … they found it pretty confusing.” Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein told commissioners on June 8.

The commission is scheduled to debate preferential voting at its next meeting, on Monday, June 22.

Commissioner Ken Bell, one of the amendment’s sponsors, conceded it may not get past the commission and onto the ballot because it is complicated and would impose a cost on the county Elections Department.

“The process itself is simple, the concept is simple, but improperly described or put into words it becomes complicated,” Bell said Friday, June 19, in an interview.

The commission meets next at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Civic Center Garden Room, 322 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.

The Charter Review Commission meets at least once every 10 years to propose amendments to the county charter, essentially the constitution for county government. The commission has accepted eight amendments so far for the November ballot. The group is scheduled to hold two more meetings, the last one on July 13.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.