From metropolitan Seattle to tiny Sequim, local politics contain a powerful lesson that voters need to take to heart. When good, well-intentioned people don’t step up, get civically engaged, vote and run for office, municipal dysfunction can ensue. 2021 is the year to break this cycle.
Election officials struggle to motivate citizens to make their voices heard when the election cycle brings up mainly local races, not state or national ones. But local elections are when a voter exercises the most power.
Local elections have great influence on our daily lives and wallets. These votes decide how schools operate, how policing works, how utilities and roads are managed, and even fire insurance premiums. Often in recent years, local elections have suffered such dismally low participation that activist minorities have been able to elect extreme candidates. The result: polarizing and alienating government actions.
“Your city council, your school board member, your fire commissioner, they really do affect your daily life,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman said, “and unfortunately, the smallest portion of our electorate will vote for them.”
The numbers bear that out. Only 42.7% of King County voters turned out for the 2017 general election, which had dozens of local races on the ballot, including the county executive, sheriff, Seattle mayor and council seats. In contrast, the county’s voters showed up in droves — 85.9% turnout — for the high-profile presidential, congressional and legislative races in November.
In this odd-year election, local offices are back on the ballot again — and those voters ought to step up again. If they don’t, effective local government is at stake.
Examples of governance gone awry when the public wasn’t engaged are sadly plentiful. Sequim is now on the national map, not for its lovely, aromatic lavender or sublime Dungeness crab, but for its mayor, a promoter of the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory. He was appointed to his council seat in 2018, then stood for election unopposed.
In August, Mayor William Armacost talked up QAnon on a mayoral radio show, calling the conspiracy theory a “truth movement.” He helped allies get appointed to open City Council seats, then moved to fire the city manager.
No more hitting the snooze button. Reform-minded Sequim voters say they are resolved to undo some of that damage when Armacost’s appointed allies are on the City Council ballot this year.
In Eatonville, planted on Mount Rainier’s west flank, voters in the 1,900-student school district elected Matt Marshall, founder of the far-right Washington Three Percenters, onto the school board in 2019. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Western States Center both identify that group as an anti-government militia organization. Voter turnout was only about 42% in the nonpartisan race; he won by 499 votes. Running as a Republican, Marshall challenged state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, in the 2020 primary for his state representative seat. With voter turnout over 50%, Marshall got only 25% of the vote in a three-way primary, failing to advance to the general. He retains his school board seat.
Hold the eye-rolling and scoffing, Seattle voters. The city’s municipal elections have given power over a metropolis with a nearly $7 billion budget to a City Council that tirelessly attacks the city’s large employers. That council also cut police funding so deeply that a federal judge warned last week that the city could run afoul of federally mandated reforms. Turnout in each of Seattle’s seven council districts was below 60% in the 2019 elections when the activist majority won office.
The Seattle Public Schools is the largest district in the state; more than 50,000 students rely on it. Yet the inexperienced school board elected to run 104 schools and a $1 billion budget unprofessionally undermined Superintendent Denise Juneau by publicly casting doubts about her contract renewal until she announced her departure. The board has yet to show a coherent plan for finding her successor.
School board meetings call for long hours of thoughtful decision-making. City council positions come with countless hours poring over the minutiae of running a city. Candidates with the ability to do these jobs well should step up. Voters must vet the candidates, their values and positions thoughtfully.
Start paying attention now to this year’s biggest elections. Several people already have declared candidacies to become Seattle mayor. City Attorney Pete Holmes, a lenient prosecutor in a city with a persistent crime problem, is up for reelection. Two City Council seats and the job of mayor are available for voters citywide to decide.
Sequim isn’t the only jurisdiction that needs a powerful course correction in 2021’s elections. Its City Hall is a curiosity for the nation today, but it should be an object lesson for local voters everywhere. When voters aren’t paying attention and incumbents go without serious election challenges, good governance can be in peril. Attentive, engaged voters can guard it.