A third initiative effort is underway for district elections for Seattle City Council members. Two previous efforts have not been successful with the voters. The current proposal is for a hybrid system. It proposes to divide Seattle into 7 districts and elect a Council member from each one. Two additional members would be elected city wide. Right now all City Council members are elected citywide. You can see the proposal more specifically by visiting their website at Seattle Districts Now.
The real question is what is broken and is it necessary to radically change the current system.
Would district elections of Seattle City Council members be good for Seattle? The proponents argue that current Seattle City Council members are out of touch with the neighborhoods and don’t respond to constituents. They argue that they have no one to take their neighborhood problems to and that having one Council member elected from their district will solve that problem.
I believe it is wishful thinking to make the assumption that the district person elected is going to somehow be more responsive to neighborhood concerns and things will be better than the current situation. There is no guarantee. Council members are elected for 4 years so it would be 4 years before someone could run again to change things. And there is the danger that district Council members may also pay a lot less attention to issues in other districts as well as city wide issues.
There is also the problem that even if you get a good District City Council member, you still need 5 votes out of 9 to get things done on the Council. Former City Council member Sam Smith was fond of repeating this over and over.
Dividing the city into districts means that because 7 of the new Council members would each only represent 1/7 of the voters and only 2 all of the voters, that this combination would give the Mayor more power and diminish the power of the City Council compared to the current City Council /Mayor structure where they are all elected citywide.
Right now nine City Council members represent all voters and voters can approach any of the nine City Council members for help. Council members are responsible for the whole city, not just 1/7 of the city. Under district elections you are pinning your hopes on one City Council member to be your primary representative.
What if that city council member is not responsive to your needs? Going to any of the other 6 district Council members probably will not be as successful because they are much less likely to feel the need to respond to your concerns as you are no longer their constituent who can vote against them. And if the issue does not involve a neighborhood in their district they are more likely to not get involved.
It’s just like trying to talk to a state legislator about a problem in your legislative district and he/she is a representative from another legislative district. He/she may listen to you but will more than likely tell you to talk to your own elected representatives.
You have 2 other city wide City Council members to try but it is not the same as having 9 possible council members to approach as you can now.
In addition proponents of district elections argue that it is too expensive to run for Seattle City Council and that being able to run in a smaller area means more people can run and have a chance of winning without having to raise big dollars. In the 2011 cycle, incumbent City Council members raised on the average about $250,000 and most challengers usually raised much less. Money means outreach and voter contact and without it is is difficult to run.
I have run twice for the Seattle City Council myself and came in third twice. I understand the money problem but I also think that with this proposal people may be putting too many hopes on the idea that changing the election process will generate more success in electing neighborhood candidates. I think the problems are bigger than that.
One basic fact will still remain. Most incumbents in Seattle are pretty well versed on the issues before them and have name recognition and media exposure that challengers usually do not. Not all challengers are qualified to run for office, lacking experience in city issues or campaign experience. Voters need a reason to throw an incumbent out. And they need some sense that the challenger will do a better job.
It is a false assumption to assume that incumbency, name recognition or money will no longer be big factors in who gets elected. Once elected in a District it will be hard to remove incumbents. One only has to look at how long some state Legislators have stayed in office and how hard it is to challenge them.
As to money I believe the same interests that support the current elected City Council members will still put their money into candidates that represent their interests. Money will still be a significant factor in City Council races.It is highly likely that most of the current City Council members will adjust to a new system and either run for a District seat in the area they live in or one of the two citywide seats and some will move if need be to another district to run.
The downtown interests and developer interests and business interests that neighborhood groups point to as funding the current Council members are not going to declare defeat or ignore City Council races because of District elections. They will support the same people who represent their interests whether they run in District elections or City wide. They will also recruit candidates to run in Districts to represent their interests if current Council members do not run in those districts. And expect they will spend as much as now to elect their candidates only the efforts will now be focused on a much smaller population of voters.
Business interests will still be able to target their mailers to voters in the Districts and will still be able to draw contributions and support from business interests citywide as well as PAC donations.
Meanwhile I think neighborhood candidates will have a more difficult time raising money because neighborhood people across the city will be less likely to give money to elect a candidate not running in their neighborhood. It is similar to what happens now in electing State Legislators. Most of their individual donors live in their legislative district. And other money coming from PAC’s will have the same strings attached as if they were running citywide.
Perspective neighborhood candidates will also have to face the limitations of running based on where they live. With district elections the options will be limited to either running against the incumbent in your district or for one of the two city wide seats. If their district incumbent is entrenched or popular or both their options are limited for running.
Right now perspective candidates can pick any incumbent city council candidate to run against or any seat. They can pick who they consider the weakest incumbent is. With district elections they would have to move to do that if it isn’t their incumbent district city council member. Moving unfortunately is not an option for most people or candidates, particularly challengers who are not guaranteed to win in any sense of the word.
Unfortunately moving would take you out of the district you live in, raising the issue of being a carpetbagger. In addition it would remove you from your previous district connections and involvement and credentials that supposedly are one of a neighborhood candidate’s assets to running in a district. And if you lose you have to wait 4 more years before you can run again in that district. Right now if you lose you can run again in two years if an open seat emerges or you just decide to run again against a different sitting incumbent.
Suppose you live in a District that has an incumbent neighborhood advocate like say Council member Nick Licata and you want to run. You’re not going to run against him so your only option is to run for one of the two citywide seats up every 4 years, which may also have 2 popular incumbents. Do you move? Your options to run have now become much more limited and the options of other good candidates have also become more limited, because of the restrictions that district boundaries place on your ability to run.
These and other concerns need to be weighted carefully before neighborhood advocates and others charge forward with significant changes to how we elect City Council members. I believe difficulties will still remain and it will be just as difficult to get elected as it is now. Downtown and business interests will still play a pivotal role in funding and electing candidates and are not going to concede the City Council to neighborhood advocates.
The prime criteria to get elected will still remain – the need to be a credible candidate with a clear compelling reason for voters to vote for you, the ability to articulate a vision for the future of the city, not just your neighborhood, the ability to raise money, the ability to communicate your message to voters and the ability connect with the voters.