by Alex Fryer
Seattle voters made history last night, radically changing the political landscape in ways we can barely foretell. No, I’m not talking about the mayor’s race, which trended along an anticipated narrative. The big game-changer last night was Charter Amendment 19, which ends the current way of electing city council members at-large. Instead, it creates a City Council where seven members are elected by district, and two citywide.
In all the hue and cry of the mayor’s race, this radical departure from the status quo was largely overlooked. The Seattle Times reported [Edit 6/28/2016: link removed] that the pro-Charter Amendment 19 campaign was largely supported by a single benefactor, North Seattle business advocate, Faye Garneau, who contributed $232,447 of the campaign’s $262,860. The campaign against district elections raised just $5,400.
That kind of financial imbalance doesn’t usually make for good public policy. During the campaign, current city council members seemed reluctant to take on district elections. Maybe they’re good prognosticators: the measure appears to be winning 64-36 percent. That’s a landslide in anyone’s book.
What will be the results? You can expect a lot more people to file for City Council. After all, the cost of running a campaign in, say, Southeast Seattle or downtown and Magnolia is a lot cheaper than citywide. And you can expect that, once in office, these folks will keep an ear close to the ground. And that ground will only cover a handful of neighborhoods. And who cares what an adjacent district thinks of them? The only constituents who matter are the ones that vote.
Ideally, district representation will mean everyone will know who to call in City Hall when the potholes get too large, the graffiti too obnoxious, or the police too lackadaisical. The complaint line will be open.
On the flip side, the Mayor’s Office will likely be empowered to play off council members against each other, and public policy will no doubt become a series of horse trades, some of it visible and obvious, some of it not.
Under district elections, we may know who to call to complain. But we may actually know less about what’s really going on.