The Case for District Elections

By Janine Blaeloch and Yusuf Cabdi October 23, 2012

Janine Blaeloch is founder and director of the Western Lands Project, a Lake City resident, and a Seattle native.

Yusuf Cabdi is a social justice advocate.

Seattle needs to change the way we elect our City Council.

Ours is the last major US city to give neighborhoods no geographic representation on its City Council. Our at-large system also dictates the type of council members we elect. The cost of a winning City Council campaign now averages more than $270,000. Worthy candidates who lack a citywide base—for example, state legislators and neighborhood leaders—are not viable contenders, regardless of their accomplishments or their contributions to our city.

We are a group of politically active Seattle citizens who have watched for many years as our at-large City Council has given neighborhood problems a lower priority in order to focus city funding and attention on major downtown projects. We do recognize that council members representing the entire city provide an important perspective that must be maintained, but to have all at-large members leaves our distinct neighborhoods and diverse needs unrepresented.

Our proposed amendment to the Seattle City Charter would establish a mixed system including both at-large and localized representation, with seven council members elected by geographic district and two citywide representatives elected at large. Richard Morrill, University of Washington Professor Emeritus, helped draft our proposed district boundaries.

If Seattle voters approve districts next November, all nine council seats would be on the ballot in 2015. Seven council members would represent districts of about 87,000 residents each and would be elected to four-year terms; the two at-large representatives would initially serve two-year terms, with elections for full four-year at-large terms in 2017.

This system would give all Seattle citizens an immediate point of contact at City Hall. And it would ensure that every part of our city has direct representation—and thereby a direct voice in major decisions. 

A case in point: If you currently reside within the boundaries of the proposed District 5, the northernmost part of Seattle, you happen to live in the one part of the city that now claims no council member as a resident. Recent walking tours in that area with individual council members have shown that, much as they care about all of our neighborhoods, the city council cannot be familiar with each area’s unique characteristics and challenges if no council member gives them a voice.

With the cost of campaigns on the rise, a district system would allow candidates to concentrate on contacting and engaging the 87,000 residents of a district, rather than Seattle’s entire population of more than 600,000 people. Voter contact expenses for a viable City Council campaign would be reduced to 1/7th of the current cost and candidates could concentrate on doorbelling precincts, rather than spending thousands of dollars on mailers and television ads.

Faye Garneau, a longtime North Seattle neighborhood business leader and co-chair of our campaign, put it best:

“A districted council member gives you someone to represent your community. Someone who lives in your community can more quickly recognize problems and better express your issues to the other council members. Then they can all make decisions based on that gathered knowledge and set priorities for the whole city.”

And if the residents of a neighborhood are not happy with the representation they're getting from an incumbent, they can replace that council member without being overruled by other city voters.

A mixed elections system including both district and at large seats provides greater access to public office, more accountability, a clearer voice for neighborhoods, and a direct point of contact at City Hall for all residents. We urge you to join us in working to qualify this proposed charter amendment for the ballot and to approve it in November 2013.

Show Comments