Push For District-Based Seattle City Council Elections

Feb 19, 2013

A campaign is mounting to switch up how Seattle City Council members are elected. Currently, members can live in any part of the city and their job is to represent the whole of Seattle. A campaign called Seattle Districts Now aims to divide the city into seven smaller districts with a council seat based in each one. Voters in each district would then elect a council member to represent their specific neighborhoods and interests.

The campaign is primarily backed by business owners, civic activists and a few state lawmakers. Supporters plan to start gathering signatures this week to place the measure on the fall ballot.

The question of council districts is a familiar one in Seattle. Voters here rejected similar plans in 1975, 1995 and most recently in 2003. 

Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, sees a common reason why some voters resist district-based politicians.

“There’s this one argument that it leads to pork-barrel politics because you’ve got champions of various parts of town trying to get city projects and city funds and all to their various parts of town,” said Donovan.

But Donovan said the pork-barrel approach can serve constituents well, as evidence shows it can lead to a more even distribution of public money across a city.

The current proposal for council districts differs from past ones in a couple major ways. This time it includes a map of where the districts could go. It also retains two citywide council seats whereas previous proposals called for a full shift to districts.

Donovan reviewed a couple of assertions about why district-based elections are better. The website Seattle Districts Now says its model would lower the cost for council candidates to run. Donovan agreed that's true. He said it tends to cost less to canvas a smaller district of voters. Under the proposal, each district would hold about 50,000 voters.

However, Donovan disagrees with another campaign claim that district elections would give newcomers a better chance to beat incumbents. “The smaller and more homogenous the district is, the more likely that that incumbent is probably going to have a pretty good chance of getting elected over and over again,” Donovan said. Especially if that incumbent is good at bringing public funds and projects back to the home district.  

Supporters need to collect more than 30,000 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot.