Reviews are mixed at this early stage about whether the 2015 Seattle City Council elections have been improved as intended by the switch to district-only voting.
Just how the habits of Seattle candidates and campaign donors change as a result of the switch could prove informative if Whatcom County goes to district-only voting starting in 2017. County voters will decide that in November.
Seattle voters approved a measure in 2013 that switched Seattle from citywide voting for council members to district-only voting. Seattle has seven districts, and seven of its nine council members starting this year are elected only by voters within their districts. The other two City Council members are “at large” or elected citywide.
Part of the reason voters approved district-only voting in Seattle was to get money out of city elections. It’s one of the arguments advanced by a majority of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission for putting district-only voting on this November’s ballot in Whatcom.
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While a lot of the hype surrounding the district-only debate in Whatcom County has been around a push by conservatives for more rural representation, possibly to the point of taking over a majority of the council, charter review commissioners have also argued plausibly that district-only voting would weaken the influence of big money on county elections.
The arrival of big money locally has coincided with the political fight over a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. Conservatives and progressives have both criticized the influx of money from either Big Environment or Big Coal, but neither has refused the support they’ve received.
Here was the prevailing logic in Seattle’s vote, according to a March article in The Stranger:
“Districts won support from people fed up with how expensive it was to get elected in this town and how easy it was for candidates and council members to ignore far-flung parts of the city that aren’t full of people ready to write big checks to their campaigns. That old mess, district supporters argued, created a city council beholden to wealthy downtown interests. Now every part of the city will have a tribute in city hall — and they might get there with less cash and more old-fashioned door knocking.”
The election reform in Seattle has thrown all nine council members onto this year’s ballot and has drawn a large number of candidates, 47 total. All nine races have at least three candidates and appear on ballots in the Tuesday, Aug. 4 primary.
So far, the promise of grassroots, low-budget campaigning in the Emerald City has not been fulfilled.
The Seattle Weekly reported on Tuesday, July 28, that money has been pouring into the Seattle primary races, in the form of independent expenditures, in amounts not seen for at least 11 years. The report acknowledged that this may be due in part to the presence of all nine council seats on ballots for the first time since 1911. But still, spending by outside groups to benefit candidates without donating directly to their campaigns has not been curtailed like district-only proponents may have expected.
(This outside spending, or independent expenditure, is important because there is no limit on the amounts that can be spent. In Seattle, candidates can receive no more than $700 per election directly from any one donor. For Whatcom County candidates, that limit on individual donations is $950.)
Seattle blogger Erica Barnett, cited in the Seattle Weekly story, investigated spending in Seattle City Council races this year:
“The outsize expenditures from outside groups puncture the notion that switching to district elections would reduce the influence of moneyed interests over local elections. If anything, reducing the number of voters a district candidate needs to win over has only made it easier for big money to target voters,” Barnett wrote in her blog, thecisforcrank.com.
On the other hand, the “outsize expenditures” may just be old spending habits dying hard, the Seattle Weekly reported:
“It’s not yet clear how effective that money will be. Maybe we’re seeing old-school spending tactics that will turn out to be obsolete in the new district system,” Weekly reporter Casey Jaywork wrote.
One measure of district-only voting’s ability to subvert big money might come from the success or failure of Seattle candidate Michael Maddux. As reported in the Seattle Weekly, Maddux is a self-described man of “modest means” whose direct contributions are nowhere close to what is coming in for his main opponent, incumbent Jean Godden.
“[Districts have] given us an opportunity to get out there, talk with voters, and be able to have that message one-on-one,” Maddux was reported saying in the Seattle Weekly.
Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who supports district-only voting, said the jury is still out on how well the new voting system is working.
“Is there somebody in these districts who’s knocking on doors and is delivering such an awesome message that the dollar figure isn’t going to matter?” McGinn says in the Weekly article.
That’s what at least some of the proponents of district-only voting in Whatcom County are hoping for, too.