By Erica C. Barnett
Anyone hoping for a continuation of 2021’s local backlash election, when Seattle voters chose a slate of candidates who promised to crack down on crime and visible homelessness, should have been disappointed by Tuesday’s early election results, which showed progressive and left-leaning local candidates defeating their more conservative opponents by solid margins.
As of Tuesday night, public defender Pooja Vaddadi was defeating incumbent Seattle Municipal Court judge Adam Eisenberg by a margin of 56 to 43 percent; embattled progressive municipal court Judge Damon Shadid was beating assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins 69 to 30 percent; and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, was defeating Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell 55 to 44 percent.
In fairness, it’s tough to directly compare the results of an odd-year (“off-year”) local election to those of an even-year midterm when progressive voters, in particular, are keyed up and perhaps unusually attuned to electoral politics. (Creeping fascism and the imposition of forced-birth laws tend to inspire a renewed interest in democracy).
And there is a major dropoff between high-profile, ballot-topping national races and those lower down the ballot—people simply vote in the national races and ignore the local ones. For example, in King County, nearly 50,000 people voted in the US Senate race between incumbent Patty Murray and Republican Tiffany Smiley (which Murray, defying some polls, was winning handily) and then chose not to cast a vote for King County Prosecutor—a dropoff of about 10 percent. In Seattle, King County Elections has counted about 218,000 ballots; yet fewer than 130,000 of those voters bothered choosing a candidate in either of the competitive Seattle Municipal Court races.
Still, those voters who did bother to vote in local races behaved differently than last year’s electorate, choosing more progressive candidates, and by larger margins, than many (including me) predicted. Conventional wisdom before the election was that Manion would face a tough challenge, if not outright Election-Night defeat, from Ferrell, a tough-on-crime former prosecutor who had the backing of local police guilds, suburban mayors, and the Seattle Times.
Manion, though no lefty crusader, supports alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, including the Restorative Community Pathways diversion program for young people accused of first-time felonies; Ferrell called RCP a “look-the-other-way program” that lets kids off without consequences and criticized the entire concept of pre-filing diversion.
The municipal court races offer clearer ideological splits, along with margins that are unlikely to close enough to reverse the outcome after more votes are counted.
Vaddadi, who has to bring a public defender’s perspective to the bench, has accused Eisenberg of being excessively punitive toward some defendants and inflexible in his approach to domestic violence cases. Although Eisenberg has touted his work establishing the Domestic Violence Intervention Program for DV offenders who want to change, he belongs to a faction of the court that leans toward conventional, punishment-based approaches to crime, while Vaddadi represents a sharp left turn.
Shadid, meanwhile, faced what initially looked like a daunting challenge from Rose-Akins, whose primary campaign issue was the incumbent’s management of community court—a therapeutic program that enrolls qualifying misdemeanor defendants in services, including health care and case management, instead of jailing them. The city attorney’s office office battled with Shadid earlier this year when he declined to exclude Davison’s list of about 120 “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from community court, and Rose-Akins announced her candidacy shortly after Davison won that battle.
One wild card this year is the vote to decide whether Seattle will adopt a new election system; as of Tuesday, Seattle voters were almost evenly split on this question, with slightly more saying we should keep our existing system than those saying we should adopt either ranked-choice voting or approval voting. (The ballot measure splits voting reform into two questions, asking voters whether they support changing the system and, in a separate question, whether they prefer ranked-choice voting or approval voting, regardless of how they voted on the first question.)
Seattle could end up rejecting both potential new systems by voting “no” on the first part of the ballot measure, but even if they do, the results for the second half of the question show overwhelming support for ranked-choice voting—the option supported by most local progressive groups, including all of Seattle’s Democratic legislative districts.
King County will release the next batch of ballots around 4:00 tomorrow afternoon.