Studies show less-affluent people and people of color around the country disproportionately decline to vote. Seattle’s south end has the highest percentage of residents making under $25,000 and the city's highest concentration of people of color. What can make voting a regular part of people's lives?

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No one is safe from her.

It doesn’t matter if they’re waiting in the dentist’s office for a root canal, under the dryer at a hair salon, or fleeing to the safety of a social-media echo chamber.

Tandy Williams has one persistent question for her fellow South Seattleites this election season: Did you vote?

Williams, 57, is a lifelong resident of the area. For nearly as long, she’s been exasperated by chronic low voter turnout in this part of the city.

“There’s not enough knowledge around voting in our community,” says Williams, a staunch Obama supporter, who desperately wants to avoid a repeat of 2017’s mayoral election.

That race saw South Seattle, represented as District 2 on the City Council, place dead last in voter turnout among all city districts.

It was a repeat performance of both the 2013 mayoral election and the 2015 City Council race.

But why?


Seattle’s southern region, just below the I-90 interchange, has the highest percentage of residents making under $25,000 as well as the city’s highest concentration of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and other people of color.

Studies show less-affluent people and people of color around the country disproportionately decline to vote. The income pattern holds in South Seattle, where voter turnout is higher and more in line with city averages the closer you move to expensive Lake Washington waterfront property.

“I wish everyone in this community could wake up to the power we have at the ballot box,” says Williams, a former precinct committee officer with the 37th District Democrats.

Geographically, the district represents most of South Seattle in the Washington Legislature. It also happens to reliably dwell near the cellar of all King County districts in voter participation.

Michael Charles has heard all the supposed explanations for low turnout. They range from apathy to futility.

A co-owner of CD Strategic, a South Seattle political consulting firm, Charles says past barriers such as ballot-box access and language impediments have played a pivotal part.

Until two years ago, South Seattle and South King County had only one full-time drop box for ballots. King County Elections has since added dozens in the area.

Charles, who lives on Beacon Hill and actively worked to increase voter turnout while with the campaigns for City Councilmember M. Lorena González and former member Tim Burgess, says that in a district where nearly half the residents speak a language other than English at home, translating ballot, initiative and candidate information can be tough with limited resources.

“When you focus your efforts online, that’s great for communities who are already have access but what about those people living in poverty or who only have access to computers at their job?” asks Charles.

He also cites studies showing that people are less likely to vote when they don’t see themselves reflected in their elected officials, pointing to the cliff-dive in black voting after Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

“Illusion of choice”

However, the biggest reason people of color vote less might be more societal says community organizer Tuesday Velasco.

“Why would you choose to participate in a system that continues to perpetuate white supremacy, white-hetero patriarchy and violence against people of color?” she asks.

For her, voting is akin to being complicit in that system. She invokes civil rights leader Malcolm X’s mantra about the ballot being like a bullet, only to be used when a target is acquired; otherwise, direct civil disobedience is the better route.

“We’re given the illusion of choice, chock full of agendas we may not see at first, thus giving us an illusion of a true and honest democracy,” says Velasco, whose only vote in the last five years has been for Nikkita Oliver during the 2017 mayoral election.

Velasco says she’d be the first in line to vote if she believed it made a difference, but believes “voting in a system that is rooted in racism, sexism and bigotry” will not bring the change this society desperately needs.

After spending years working on increased voter participation in the area as the executive director of local policy group Puget Sound Sage, Nicole Keenan empathizes with Valesco, but views voting as an imperfect necessity akin to a doctor visit.

“If a system has done nothing but harm you, why would you feel participating in it would benefit you? But that’s also what the people who don’t want you to vote want you to believe,” she says.

Finding ways to engage

Someone who does want people to vote is Julie Wise. The director of King County Elections has spent the past four years attempting to solve the riddle of low voter turnout in South King County, and the difficulty of reaching out to speakers of 178 different languages in the area.


“We’re attempting to leverage as many community organizations to get the word out about voting,” says Wise. With its high foreign-born population, both South Seattle and South King County also have low voter registration.

“There’s a lot of complexity around ballot and voter-registration language that can be convoluted at times,” she says, which is why King County Elections has partnered with the Seattle Foundation to provide voter-engagement grants to communities that speak limited English.

Wise also points to prepaid postage for ballots, the addition of 56 ballot drop boxes in the county, geographic district representation at the city level and impending same-day voting registration as tools that will likely increase turnout.

Additionally, millennials of color are trying creative ways to engage would-be voters, This week, Brianna Thomas threw a ballot party for her demographic, which is least likely to vote.

“Right now the world feels fraught and people of color experience those issues differently than not people of color,” says Thomas.

Early returns for the entire county look promising for a record-setting turnout in this midterm election.

Credit Tandy Williams with contributing to that turnout. After weeks of persistence, she persuaded her cousin to vote. But anyone within a 25-foot radius of Williams should be on alert until Tuesday’s election, as she hasn’t stopped proselytizing about voting’s importance.

For now, it’s all she can do.

 

Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.