Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy

By Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis 

I am a strong supporter of district elections for Seattle City Council. I have been ever since managing former council member Nick Licata’s re-election campaign in 2009 and seeing the deficiencies of the old city-wide alternative. 

So I read with great interest a September 2nd article by former Councilmember Jean Godden reporting on an effort to revisit districts and potentially go back to an at-large system or add more citywide positions to the council. Anonymous critics quoted in the piece raised several concerns about the current system.

First, they claimed districts enhance the power of “interest groups”. Second, they argued districts are fragmented and include neighborhoods without perceived commonality, citing examples such as Magnolia and Belltown in District 7 and Mount Baker and Rainier Beach in District 2. And third, they claimed districts result in less diversity in government and are unfair to poor and minority voters. 

In every respect, these claims are unfounded. Districts, along with democracy vouchers, have considerably enhanced our democracy in Seattle by reducing special interest influence, encouraging accountability to community concerns, and increasing diversity of representation.

Districts Diminish Special Interest Influence

Former Boston Mayor Kevin White once famously said “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Missing from the criticism of district elections is any comparison to the old exclusively at-large system. This is probably because on every purported critique of districts, an exclusively at-large system scores far worse.   

First, a close analysis of interest group influence reveals the old at-large system was far more susceptible. I was struck, while managing Licata’s campaign in 2009, by the incentives the at-large system created for candidates to choose donors over voters. Running citywide requires raising enough resources to buy advertising and build name familiarity in a city of nearly 750,000 people, essentially as big as a congressional district. Under the old system, locking down a few dozen big donors early was essential to be competitive.

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.   

Under districts, candidates go door-to-door and talk to voters directly. I personally knocked on more than 8,500 doors last year, and I know most of my colleagues did the same. On hundreds of occasions, voters told me that no candidate for city office had ever knocked on their door. I learned about chronically ignored neighborhood issues that have shaped my priorities in office. Indeed, my successful efforts to save the UpGarden P-Patch started as a doorbell conversation. These interactions cannot happen at scale under an at-large system. The only viable strategy is dialing for dollars—which, in turn, gives more access to big donors, and by extension special interests.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that “special interests” are benefiting from districts. If special interests equate to big money, then districts have considerably mitigated their advantage in Seattle elections. Of all the candidates who won last year I had the most independent money spent on my behalf, $409,887 from UNITE HERE Local 8, a union representing hospitality workers. Even so, the aggregate of support from the Chamber of Commerce, big hotel owners, and other business-aligned PACs in independent expenditures for my opponent totaled $586,456, a disparity of $176,569. 

I suspect what is really happening is that the coalition that was largely unsuccessful in the 2019 council elections thinks an at-large system would benefit them electorally.

This trend was consistent across council races: In five out of seven districts, the candidate with the least special interest money spent on their behalf went on to win. My colleague Dan Strauss was outspent by an unprecedented $747,538. That result implies districts are far less susceptible to the influence of big money, and therefore the influence of interest groups is considerably diminished.

A Return to At-Large Does Nothing to Mitigate “Fragmentation”

Another issue district critics raise is the grouping of neighborhoods perceived to have different priorities into the same district, creating a fragmentation of interests. 

The fragmentation argument is perhaps the strangest one for abolishing districts. If districts are so large that neighborhoods with divergent interests are being lumped together, isn’t that an argument for more districts? 

It also assumes a council member is incapable of attending to the various needs of different neighborhoods within their district. My staff and I have a regular presence in community council meetings in all the neighborhoods of District 7. In the case of the small Cascade Neighborhood Council, I was the first city council member to ever attend one of their meetings.

Under an at-large system, such sustained engagement with neighborhood organizations is difficult and accountability to the community is diffuse. After every census districts are redrawn, and if there truly are issues related to fragmentation they can be dealt with through that process. Reverting to an at-large system would do nothing to address it.          

Districts Have Led to a More Diverse Council

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.   

Political scientists have written extensively about early 20th century “reforms” structured explicitly to disenfranchise minority voters. At-large systems of representation were among them. Professor Luis Fraga, a mentor of mine from UW undergraduate days, wrote a detailed study in 1988 of municipal politics in San Antonio illustrating this phenomenon in practice. San Antonio was historically dominated by a business-funded slate called the Good Government League (GGL) which nominated predominately white candidates. GGL candidates were routinely the first choice of 88.5% of white voters, but only the first choice of 23% and 21.9% of Latinx and black voters respectively. 

Because Latinx and black voters were geographically concentrated, the at-large format allowed the GGL to routinely elect their candidates despite the racial polarization in voting.  As Professor Fraga concludes: “the GGL thus served as an organizational mechanism through which [white voters] could dominate municipal elections in an at-large system.” 

A similar pattern existed for many years in Seattle. Between 1997 and 2013, elected white councilmembers outnumbered elected people of color on the council 16-5, with the most diverse ratio serving at any given time being seven white members and two members of color. Over the course of the two districted election cycles, those ratios have been 8-6 and 4-5, respectively; and three of the seven districts are represented by a person of color. 

The diversity of the current council is not just due to districts. Democracy vouchers undoubtedly are a big part of expanding access to the electoral process as well. But given the results of the first two district cycles, one of which occurred prior to vouchers, it is hard to argue the at-large system has any advantage in producing a diverse City Council. The early data strongly suggests the opposite.

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Demographics are Making Seattle More Progressive

I suspect what is really happening is that the coalition that was largely unsuccessful in the 2019 council elections thinks an at-large system would benefit them electorally. There is plenty of historical evidence that could be the case. However, even that assumption is likely wrong. What is actually happening is millennial and Gen Z voters are organized and turning out in higher numbers.

Millennial and Gen Z voters are extremely progressive. A Pew study from January of last year indicates that both groups overwhelmingly believe in confronting the exigent threat of climate change, urgently organizing for racial equity, and boldly doing so through the power of government action. These politics have been shaped by decades of stagnation in wages and benefits, unpaid internships, student debt, barriers to home ownership, and rising rents. Another recent Pew study ominously found that a majority of Americans age 18-29 now live with their parents, more than any time since the Great Depression. 

Seattle is a millennial and Gen Z city. The average age in Seattle is 35 (and 54 percent of Seattleites are renters), and they are voting. In 2019, when there was no mayoral election leading the local ballot, total turnout for Seattle elections was 42.01 percent in the primary and 54.5 percent in the general election, besting the 2017 mayoral election, with turnout of 40.5 percent and 49.2 percent respectively. 

And as Crosscut reported last year, a lot of that increase was due to higher than usual turnout from younger voters. It is unsurprising Seattle voters have elected millennial politicians in droves in the last few years, including County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Senator Joe Nguyen, Port Commissioner Sam Cho, School Board Director Zach DeWolf, and Seattle City Council members Dan Strauss and me. 

Young voters are extremely unlikely to support platforms defined by anti-tenant stances, budget austerity, Grover Norquist-style anti-tax pledges, and treating homelessness as a policing problem and not a housing problem; and their impact will be felt city-wide. There is no better evidence of this than my colleagues Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González. Both were overwhelmingly elected by double-digit margins citywide, and both are consummate progressive leaders.

To credit district elections with Seattle’s progressive shift is to mistake causation for correlation. The reality is that demographics are rapidly shifting and bringing generational change. 

Andrew Lewis represents District 7 on the Seattle City Council.

4 thoughts on “Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy”

  1. What about moving towards proportional representation through ranked choice voting and multi-winner districts? With 9 council members, we could divide the city into three districts, which would each send three people to the council.

    This makes the precise borders of the districts less important, since representation will be roughly proportional to the makeup of residents – e.g. if 2/3 of a district is pro- transit, housing, etc, and 1/3 is not, that will be reflected in the councilmembers the district elects, whereas right now, those in the minority in their district get no representation.

    Sightline has written extensively about this, mostly in regards to state/national politics, but it would provide benefits at all levels of government!

  2. I believe you’re right about district elections, they’re being blamed for something they didn’t cause. Though not convinced that the money and outcome in District 6 proves anything – that money was really ill spent, harmed its intended beneficiaries in every district – you would have lost if it weren’t for that – and would have had the same effect city wide.

    But our system still does inherently steer the election to candidates with money and influence behind them. From the outset, your race was between you and Pugel, and the voters understand that, the press understands it. The other candidates have their supporters, and there’s a little press sometimes, but when we fill out the ballot, we either vote for a “front runner”, or we waste our vote. Connections, a campaign consultant who can run with the big dogs, that’s what gets people in city hall.

    People can compensate for that, as they [over]compensated for the late campaign spending in the last election, but they can’t solve the “wasted vote” problem, it’s built into our system. A ranked choice election would address that – I could vote for Lipscomb-Eng for example if I liked her best, and then for you or Pugel as 2nd best, and not under any circumstance throw away my vote.

  3. I have no faith in the Seattle City Council at this point after their horrible decision to veto the mayor’s plan with no plan of their own in place. Getting rid of the Navigation Team does a complete disservice to the hoards of homeless living on the streets of Seattle. The council fails to recognize that a strong, downtown core of businesses is essential for a city to be vital. I hope the recall on Sawant is just the first step in getting these idiots out of office.

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