Community Post

Should the City Council be elected by districts?

7-2_map_largeThe petition has been filed to create a district-based city leadership election system, and now signatures are needed to get the movement to a vote.

Currently, all nine Council members are elected citywide, or at-large. The proposed 7-2 “mixed system” would create seven districts in Seattle, each with about 87,000 voters, and two at large, citywide representatives.

If Seattle Districts Now is able to gather the 40,000 signatures needed to qualify for a city charter amendment on the November ballot and voters approve the plan, the seven district representatives would be elected in 2015:

Two years after that, we’d elect our two at large or city-wide representatives and so it’d would go in alternating election cycles.  One cycle, we’d elect our district representatives, then in the next our city-wide representatives.

It would ensure city councilmembers are closer to the people they represent and that voters better know their city councilmembers.  And the seven district representatives would provide for geographic distribution of Councilmembers, while giving individual neighborhoods a distinct voice and real access on major issues, while the two at-large representatives ensure that the citywide perspective is maintained. The best of both worlds.

To start the effort and spread the word, organizers are hosting a Signature Gathering Kickoff Event:

Date: Wednesday, February 20th

Time: 6:30pm – 8:30pm

Location: Rainier Valley Cultural Center

Address: 3515 S. Alaska Street 

We reported on the Seattle Districts Now effort earlier this year:

We like it for the opportunity to take energy currently contained in informal community council and group efforts and giving it a structured shape in city policy. It’s a system that could see more individuals rise from community activist to influential Seattle politicians. Maybe. It could also be simply another way to deal the cards in the same old game.

You can learn more at

21 thoughts on “Should the City Council be elected by districts?

  1. The District-based idea sounds appealing, but I’d like to hear a good case for the benefits. I think you could make the opposite case that the current configuration reflects Seattle’s neighborhoods just fine (Bruce Harell is based in the CD and represents our neighborhood’s interests).

    How would big city issues like Transporation and Security be better addressed by District representatives? Other reforms to the council, such as campaign finance reform, may be more effective in creating a competitive City Council that represents our city’s interest.

    • Yes, Bruce is responsive where he has the specific knowledge for the committee he chairs. When it comes to items outside of his direct responsibility, he tends to be hands off. With districts, comments regarding committee work is still in play for everyone, but our district representative will be more accountable to represent our views on legislation that is within any committee.

  2. I’m generally against this, but am keeping an open mind. Breaking up aliances at the council effectively breaks up the city into pieces. I think we’re stronger together as one city than as battling districts.

    • Matt the Engineer, it has been a nice surprise to see the first two comments and thoughts on this proposal rise above the campaign rhetoric.

  3. What I have heard and read about this issue is that the central downtown area benefits from the current 100% at-large system, to the detriment of the various neighborhoods. According to this argument, the city council members/candidates do not need to pay much attention to neighborhood issues (laws, projects, funding, etc.) because their constituency is really the moneyed interests, which tend to fund their campaigns and want votes that benefit the large businesses. If they depended on their own districts for votes, they would be more likely to focus on local needs, such as transportation, street maintenance, etc.

    • I largely agree, Carolyn. this is about accountability having reps who understand … and are accountable … on neighborhood concerns. Despite the straw-man arguments in the other comments here, that local accountability is all the more important for places like the CD that have often gotten the short shrift in terms of real understanding,focus and investment. It would be nice to have a single council member who can truly represent practical local concerns and can be held accountable for them vs. the current model where their primary allegiance is to the special interests (moneyed & not) that got them elected.

      • Carolyn and Tom you are giving the best arguments for election by districts and do a good job describing the intent for the idea of election by districts. And, on the surface it can look good. However, I would like some examples of where it works any better than what we have here, as I can give examples of several cities that are steeped in corruption that use districts. Big money from anywhere can be involved any election. Think of the years that a well-off coalition selected a slate of school board members they wanted elected. They provided resources in the primary and general election. Those members, once elected worked together on various agendas and to a great extent marginalized our representative. Of course, money can influence the at-large elections too, but at least the candidates have reach to reach all of us and one person is not our only path to representation.

        The primary in the School Board election is important as the top two are selected for each district. If there is no competition or only two candidates then only one goes on to the general election. There is only one district where we have any say about who the candidates are and therefore it ends up working mainly the same as district elections rather than at-large. What is to keep a few special interests to sponsor each district election? Look at the map, what would keep the well-off interests in the district from have the most leverage, along with outside investors? Would it be more work to try to reach out to the committees on which our representative did not serve and get a fair hearing?

        Think about our school board, as each retreats back the district and does not represent the district as a whole. For instance, what if transportation is not the main interest of the our district representative and the representative does not have the leverage with the transportation committee? Then we would have constituent clout with mainly that one representative and hope that that person cared about our issue and could get the leverage to get votes for it. Portland is another example of a city that has all at-large elections. combined with a weak mayor and a plurality-at-large type of voting. I think they have had decent luck with growing and still preserving much of the character that makes Portland desirable and livable. Since I already wrote a long response, I will try to keep this post shorter.

    • I would never use the School Board as an analogy because it involves a city wide vote in the general, which makes it a mixed model and difficult to evaluate.

      It will be different if we go to this plan, and I think better. The money won’t be out of politics (there are other efforts to equalize that aspect more), but the balance sheet of benefit regarding what an interest outside of a district is buying will be more limited. That is because there is a built in accountability to their district which is that they can be fired without a ton of $$. A contender without much money who is able to knock on 15,000 doors (doable), could get non performing district based council member out of office. The added value is that the new person is elected having actually met and talked with a majority of their constituents.

      I lived and actively participated in a city with 9 wards and 2 at large and it functioned better for the neighborhoods. In my ward we were sick and tired of our non-responsive council member. A well respected community activist, who was known and loved by many constituencies, decided to run. We all went out on a double decker red bus every Saturday morning and he basically met almost everyone in the ward. He listened to concerns and problems, and even before being elected, worked to get solutions in motion. He set up an advisory group from his campaign and he was available and in touch with constituents.

      Did I feel that way about all of the other council people? Not always, but if they represented their constituents to their constituents satisfaction, they stayed in office. Well coordinated citywide work by citizens were still required on many issues to put pressure on the whole of the council.

      Today in Seattle, if council members perform to the satisfaction of the downtown and out of town big donors they get to stay in office. And well coordinated citywide work by citizens way too often is ignored. Today every council member is elected by 600,000 people and supposed to represent them all, but really represents us not very well.

  4. Bruce Harrell actually lives in Seward Park (when he’s not at his place in Bellevue). The fact that you believe he represents the CD shows how broken the current system is.

    • Bruce Harrell: campaign headquarters at 23rd and Union. I think he makes a pretty good effort to represent our area. Feel free to make your case otherwise, but his street address isn’t what I’m concerned about.

      • Remember under the new scheme you would not be able to vote for your favorite Council Member. It would be all about address. Many like Nick Licata too, and his address is not in this area either.

  5. I have been attempting to keep an open mind on this and am not having any luck. Why would I want to be perceived as a constituent by only one City Council member or in this case, I guess it would be three. I am biased as not in favor of the scheme to break Seattle into Districts for many reasons and have been for sometime. I want to have a say in all who are elected to Seattle City Council, not just in my District. For instance, I want the Chair of the Transportation Committee and Public Safety Committee to know that I am a constituent. Why would I want just one council member of seven to pay attention and trust that they will get the leverage or care about the issue that I brought before them. I know it is not necessarily easy now, but at least it is not just the ear of one that is important. I don’t see any possible improvement except in the rare case of the district’s rep. happening to be chair of the committee that is of interest at that moment. The entities/elected official themselves do the redistricting or appoint those who do. In visiting and studying other cities, I have the impression that problems can exist with or without at-large or by district elections and that the district type model has numerous problems related to ward type politics, not fun. While the Districts on the proposed map may initially appear somewhat rational, I notice that a little adjustments have had to be made around the boundaries of the Central District (not defined on the map), Queen Anne and others. No boundaries will remain fixed as population must be equalized and are volatile from year to year in the various areas. Due to the need to balance populations in each area lines are never guaranteed and are the drawing of the areas is always very political.

    The fact is that the districts would change over time, if not as soon as any official drawing of lines set in. Incumbents would draw the districts or appoint those who did. If the thought is that somehow the well-off have an advantage now, under this plan the well-off in each area could still dominate the district.

    Even now if you look at where the current council members live, there is Bruce Harrell in more South Seattle, Richard Conlin in Central and Sally Clark in the South. Nick Licata is in the North and was in Capitol Hill and on and on. Sally Bagshaw is Downtown. Burgess is from Queen Anne. Tom is from West Seattle. Godden is from the Northend. Obrien is from Fremont. I don’t think Districts will do anything but bring ward type politics to Seattle. Again, very time I attempt to be more open minded about this, I end up not having much luck. Anyone can give money to any candidate, be they at-large or by district.

    I think there are important issues facing Seattle and that this is a distraction and will not necessarily improve the conversations in Seattle as a whole or bring us together as a city. I have attempted to research the efficiency of such systems and compare laws and have found no long term advantages to districts. I do not believe, for instance, that many that have District representatives or hybrid have a better record of governance, and some cases it is much worse. The only type of situation that I can find where it may have an advantage is the one that would be good in the situation as portrayed in “Milk.” Yes, in he was able to become elected from a District and likely would have had a tough time in an at-large situation. However, I have not found that Districts over time improve the diversity of the elected officials, and over-time I wonder if districts have served San Francisco that well. It is one of the most expensive cities in terms of housing with few families and children. Remember San Francisco also has ranked-choice voting in the mix.

  6. Why not both?

    I know this isn’t what the petition calls for….but a council comprised of both district commissioners and at-large commissioners would combine the best elements of both. Wouldn’t it?

      • Oops…. I meant to say an even distribution of district/at large. I think people will perceive a mix of 7+2 as essentially changing over to district. That’s the way I’d see it, anyway. I can see both sides to this issue, not firmly convinced either way (yet).

    • JimS, let me know how this would be better and examples of where it works better than our current system. It is only worth it at all if it will really work better, as the district scheme adds layers of politics to the system to manipulate. First the drawing of district boundaries would be highly political and insider process. Also the politics of getting any leverage on an issue will be more complicated, as most of the leverage would have to be through the district representative. Even now look at the proposed districts. What if there are competing interests within the district, how would you know which one the representative would decide to represent? I can easily imagine that there may be competing interests in anyone of those areas. There is nothing preventing a well-off group sponsoring candidates in each district.

      • JimS, sorry to ask you a question. I see you were not necessarily posting an argument, but more of a question.

  7. The council seems to represent the city populace and it’s diversity pretty well. Unfortunately. Being as Seattle is a very very far left leaning goverment as the solution to all issues city. That is what the people want and what the council offers and what the administration deliverse as poorly as expected. Change won’t change Seattle.

    I’ll agree with those that think district representation will just lead to factionalism within each district and in the county. It’s strangly better that we have just one milk toast socialist agenda than a bunch of radical greens, communists, baptists, or what have you focused on a faction of people within a fraction of the city.

    With great dread, I support the status quo.

  8. ktkeller, can you share the name of your former city? The School Board is a model of how districts operate, in that if you watch how they work, they all look to the representatives of the specific areas to make deals for the areas in question. In the meantime, either larger interests invest in a slate of candidates or one area of the District is dominate or is more well-represented than the other. There is no reason not to believe that is how this new Seattle City Council scheme would work too. I only wish that the School Board representation more reflected at-large elections. Also the only School Board candidates that the whole city gets to vote for there are the ones selected in the district, and if there is no challenger from specifically that district there is no opposition But, the names of some cities where you believe districts are really working would help.

    There are approximately 621,000 residents. Not all are registered voters and the districts are based on residents, not the number of voters. There are 414,028 registered voters total in Seattle with some areas having more residents who are not registered or eligible to register. So the number needed to elect in each district could and would vary considerably. If all were perfectly balanced in number of voters (not possible) each district would would have about 80,000 voters.

    The ability for various groups including the not so well-off to work together is important. What is to keep these large and well-heeled interests from contributing and running candidates in each district? Yes, maybe a district would have a great candidate or not so great, but then the voters would not be able as voters now to lobby other Council Members as constituents in the case of not-so-great.. Then there is the problem of this great representative getting the leverage for votes needed to actually do some good. Remember all members still get to vote on all the legislation before the representative body. During the reign of the not-so-great representation the district would be at many disadvantages while the city moved on with legislation that favored other areas. We would have to trust that over and over the local representative is the one who will listen to all and have the political savvy to get things done for us. I am not saying that there is not room for improvement in working together for the common interests of an average citizen in Seattle.I just don’t see this as the solution, and at the same time it could be a move that could make things worse.