Seattle voters this fall can choose from a wide spectrum of candidates for City Council. And while they may vary in quality and purpose for seeking public office, it is a credit to the citizenry that so many want to serve.
And yet Seattle’s system of choosing our City Council members cheats the voters. There are nine seats on the council. But voters get to vote on only three: the one running in their district and the two at-large candidates. Under the relatively new system of district representation, six of the council members will set policy for people who get no say in who they are. That is not healthy democracy.
Approved by the voters five years ago, Seattle’s district system allows for two members elected at-large, that is, they are elected by voters citywide. The remaining seven seats are divided into territorial districts. This system replaced an at-large system that allowed city voters to cast ballots for all nine council seats: five in one odd year, four two years later.
This means that when citizens have a question or issue to take to the council, they could approach any or all of the nine members. All nine were accountable to all Seattle citizens. Not anymore.
Since the change to the Balkanized district division of the seven council seats, there have been many complaints that the goal of district representation — bringing council members closer to the citizens — has never been achieved. This is especially true in District 6 (Ballard-Fremont), District 7 (Queen Anne-Magnolia), and District 3 (Central District, Capitol Hill and Montlake).
Consider the reality that many citizens, regardless of which part of the city they live in, are keenly concerned about issues impacting other neighborhoods. Moreover, a Seattle voter has no way to hold accountable six council members who set policy affecting them. Call it policy-without-representation.
As a voter in District 3, I care that people who shop in South Seattle at the stores on Rainier Avenue South and South Genesee Street are complaining about inadequate police protection. Ballard voters also worry about the lack of police protection.
And I care that city officials have stiffed the Magnolia neighborhood by breaking a promise to replace the Magnolia Bridge — a primary access road to their community.
When all nine members represent all citizens, the people have claim on the attention of all nine. That’s a far better, more democratic system than the one in place.
Advocates for district elections complained running citywide campaigns was too costly. The city’s voucher program, allowing voters to distribute up to $100 from city funds to the candidate or candidates of her/his choice, has helped alleviate that problem.
In a time of Trump and voter suppression, it is unfortunate Seattle adheres to an undemocratic system that restricts voter choice for its City Council. Let’s bring back at-large voting.