This November, Capitol Hill voters will get a chance to help decide if the Seattle City Council should shift to a district-based election system. Be careful. The change could be a costly one for the increasingly dense neighborhoods of proposed Seattle District 3.
“We didn’t draw these based on density, we drew it on population,” Seattle Districts Now campaign coordinator Eugene Wasserman tells CHS. “It doesn’t really matter if you live in an apartment or house, most people have the same basic issues.”
Under the proposal, Seattle would be carved out into seven districts with a council member elected from each district. Two additional council members would be elected at large. Each district would have roughly 87,000 voters.
On August 5 the Seattle City Council voted to place the measure on the ballot after the Seattle Districts Now campaign submitted the required number of signatures. If approved by voters in November, Charter Amendment 19 would require district elections in 2015. The boundaries were drawn by Richard Morrill, a demographer and University of Washington professor.
Wasserman and other supporters of the proposed amendment say it would bring more accountability to Council and would allow younger and less politically connected candidates to run for office. Opponents, however, say the boundaries — set in stone for a decade — ignore important cultural and demographic boundaries and would give undue weight to less-populated areas of the city.
Under the current proposal Capitol Hill and the Central District would be a part of Seattle District 3, which also includes the heavily residential, homeowner dominated neighborhoods of Madison Park, Madrona, and Montlake.
SEIU 775 union rep David Rolf called the plan a “Craftsman homeowner empowerment act” in an interview with the Seattle Times earlier this summer. Those against the charter amendment have also argued that the at-large council members already divide themselves into informal neighborhood districts based on where they live and the issues they champion.
Wasserman says the effort to create the district lines intentionally ignored elements like cultural boundaries, efforts to form minority-majority districts or apartment dominated districts.
Instead, Wasserman said districts were drawn largely along natural geographical boundaries, with lines through Lake Union, the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and The Duwamish River.
The lack of cultural and density inputs has created some interesting groupings. For instance Magnolia is lumped in with Belltown and downtown in District 7, instead of getting paired with Ballard just across the cut. “Downtown and Magnolia are part of the same police district — that’s even more unbelievable,” Wasserman said about the District 7 grouping.
Wasserman said Districts Now made only one change to the district boundaries following community input. According to Wasserman, residents in Eastlake felt that the neighborhood was inappropriately divided with a boundary across Roanoke. The map has since been updated to place the entire neighborhood west of I-5 into District 4.
The charter amendment being voted on in November would require that the district be redrawn every decade.
Today, City Council members are divided by chairing various committees from parks to public safety. If you have a specific issue, a citizen can bring it up with the Council member who chairs the relevant committee. According to Districts Now, the committee system would remain. But opponents point out that Council members ill be less likely to hear out the issues of residents outside their district. One group of opponents, Choices Not Districts, filed the statement against the charter amendment for King County Elections:
City council members should be accountable to all of us. Districts pit the interests of one geographic area against the others rather than addressing the common good. We need to elect the best qualified candidates who will work for the common good, regardless of where they live in the city!
The districting advocates’ argument is that geography trumps freedom of choice. Their argument is that you are better off to have to vote for someone you may not like who lives in your district than to have the freedom of choice to vote for the candidates of your choice regardless of where they live in town. Just because someone lives in your part of town doesn’t mean that he/she shares your political ideologies.
Chances for the amendment to be approved would seem slim. Seattle voters have rejected similar proposals before, most recently in 2003. The big difference this time around is the incorporation of the two at-large seats and pre-planned boundaries. According to Wasserman, all but three of the largest 50 cities in the country use some form of district representation: Seattle, Portland, and Columbus, OH.
“Regular people have to be more involved and part of the conversation and it’s very hard to do that with the at-large system,” Wasserman said. “This is not a small town anymore.”