When the Seattle City Council switched from citywide to district elections, it had a couple unintended consequences. Some voters may not be too thrilled about it.
The city’s recent population growth has not just been rapid — it’s also been wildly uneven. Because of that, residents of some of the seven districts now have less representation per capita than others. And within the districts, some neighborhoods have gained influence in deciding the outcome of City Council elections, while others have lost clout.
In 2013, when the city’s seven districts were drawn up, they were roughly equal in population — each district had about 88,000 people, give or take a couple thousand. That, of course, was the intention. Representation on the City Council was meant to be equal across districts.
That didn’t last long.
Each district has grown at a different rate, and they range from a low of 11% growth in District 5 to a high of 37% in District 7. That’s pencils out to about 26,000 more people in the 7th than in the 5th, which means City Council representation isn’t so equal anymore. And that trend in growth is most likely to continue over the next couple of years.
District 7 saw such a sharp increase in population because it includes the bulk of the city’s fastest-growing area, South Lake Union, plus most of the high-density downtown neighborhoods. These areas have experienced a boom in apartment-building development, and have absorbed most of the 7th’s 33,000-person population increase.
The 7th also includes a couple neighborhoods that couldn’t be much more different from downtown: Magnolia and Queen Anne. Both are mostly zoned for single-family homes exclusively, and so they haven’t grown much at all.
That’s what a lot of Magnolia and Queen Anne residents wanted — there’s been fierce opposition to zoning changes in both neighborhoods.
But because these neighborhoods haven’t grown much while the rest of the district has boomed, their share of the voting-age population has shrunk. Both these neighborhoods now have a diminished influence in deciding who will represent the district on the City Council.
On the other hand, the district’s fast-growing downtown neighborhoods — areas inhabited predominantly by younger adults, renters and transit-users — now have a greater say in their City Council election.
In the current District 7 council race, the more progressive candidate, assistant city attorney Andrew Lewis, has eked out a slight lead over former Seattle police chief Jim Pugel.
A similar demographic trend has happened in District 3, where socialist Kshama Sawant is poised for a come-from-behind win over business-backed challenger Egan Orion.
District 3 is the second-fastest growing after the 7th. Since 2013, its population has increased by close to 22,000, or 24%. The bulk of this growth has been absorbed by Capitol Hill, First Hill and the Central District, where the zoning allows for it.
As in the 7th, these neighborhoods are a younger demographic, and primarily made up of renters. And these areas now have more say in City Council races than those in the district with more restrictive zoning and less growth, such as Montlake, Madison Park, Denny-Blaine, Madrona and Leschi.
Each of the seven City Council districts includes areas where zoning allows for growth, but some less than others. District 5 in North Seattle (it includes Northgate) only increased in population by about 10,000, or 11%.
Seattle residents can expect a lot of reshuffling in 2022, when the City Council districts will be redrawn and reset to an even distribution of the city’s population.
CORRECTION: Egan Orion’s name was misspelled in an early version of this story.