Time To Revisit The Way We Elect Seattle City Councilmembers?


Seattle voters elect seven (of nine) city councilmembers from districts and two from the city at large, all for four-year terms. The next election, November 2021, will vote on the two at-large seats, now held by M. Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda. That system has been in place since 2015. The switch from decades of citywide elections to selection by geographic districts was approved by voters in 2013. This hybrid system was sold to voters as a better way to represent and run the city.

However, there are signs that, after a couple of run-throughs, districts are not operating quite the way we expected. One observer — a highly-placed official at City Hall who must remain anonymous — said the unthinkable: “We’ve got to go back to citywide elections.”

“This system is the worst of worlds,” complained a prominent politician. “Yes, we elect candidates from geographic districts, but they end up paying allegiance to interest groups that helped elect them.”

“Districts are fragmented,” observed another critic. “How can you have a unified district that includes such diverse neighborhoods as, say Mount Baker and Rainier Beach? Or Magnolia and Belltown?”

What it adds up to — some say — is an unrepresentative city council. Some city watchers claim the system is unfair to poor and minority voters, as well as business interests. Awkwardly, Seattle’s council no longer has a single African-American member, though it has one Native American and three Hispanic Americans.

Back in 2013, district elections were sold to the voters after three unsuccessful attempts. Voters finally said “yes” after two business women (Suzie Burke and the late Faye Garneau) spent several million on an initiative. The two believed a new system — seven districts and two at-large councilmembers — would help elect more conservatives, and those more responsive to local interests. They were dead wrong.

The city’s seven districts were drawn by Richard Morrill, a University of Washington professor of geography. He split the electoral map strictly on the basis of population: each district consisting of some 87,000 voters.

Since Prof. Morrill drew that map some seven years ago, the city has grown by leaps, but grown unevenly. District 7, which takes in downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, has seen a 37 percent increase in population. Meanwhile, District 5 in North Seattle has grown only 11 percent. Other districts fall somewhere between. The difference is not inconsiderable. That means a disparity between largest and smallest districts of around 22,000 voters.

Those lopsided districts are scheduled to be redrawn by an independent commission, but not until after completion of the 2020 census.

It helps to look back on how districting was initially sold to voters. At the time, backers argued that candidates would have fewer voters to reach and would be able to focus more on local concerns. They said: “We’ll finally be able to advocate for sidewalks.” They said more young people would be encouraged to run for office (which has happened).

Another argument was that it would cost less to mount a campaign. That idea, coupled with a 2015 councilmanic vote approving the city’s new Democracy Voucher system that caps contributions and gives every registered voter four $25 coupons to support candidates, was supposed to reduce money spent in elections.

Fat chance. Turns out that much more was spent. In the 2015 elections, total spending on the seven seats was $785,000. By 2019, expenditures ballooned to $4.2 million. The big difference was partly due to public funds, but mostly due to independent expenditures that were not capped in any way. Political action committees could spend heavily — and spend they did.

Unlike a candidate’s campaign, PACs aren’t transparent. ln the 2015 district election, PACs spent heavily on two candidates: First District candidate Shannon Braddock, who narrowly lost in the general election to Lisa Herbold, and the Fourth District’s Rob Johnson, who quit midterm to work for the ice hockey team. In the 2019 elections, Amazon dropped $1.5 million on business-oriented candidates, who — due to heavy backlash against Amazon — were mostly unsuccessful.

After the Amazon fiasco, Councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez authored a law capping independent expenditures at $5,000 and prohibiting contributions from any company with as little as 1 percent foreign ownership. Gonzalez’s attempt to limit PAC money has yet to face a legal challenge, but seems certain to be tested.

Now there are rumors of a campaign forming to revisit citywide elections, going back to at-large positions or at least modifying today’s system. Some plans call for five geographic districts and four citywide seats or perhaps four districts and five citywide positions. People are talking about “doing something,” but whether a campaign to change the system materializes is still up in air.

At the very least the time has come to discuss how we select our councilmembers and how we ensure that voters can know who is spending to elect them.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. Seattle is ready for change. Rather than simply “reset” how about something new.
    Attribute to Roger Valdez:
    Is the Seattle City Council working for you?
    Charter Amendment Proposal
    • Change number of council districts to 25 based on population;
    • Councilmembers will be elected to two-year terms with a term limit of 6 years;
    • The compensation for Councilmembers will be set at 60 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income ($42,150 in 2018) as established by HUD;
    • Child care will be included for members of the City Council as part of compensation as well as health benefits and one staff person who will be compensated at the same level as the Councilmember;
    • The Councilmembers will be elected by ranked choice voting using the model that will take effect in San Francisco in November 2019; and
    • Each year the Mayor’s Budget proposal must be presented to the voters for an advisory (approve or disapprove) vote before submission to the City Council for approval.

    Would a proposal (updated for today’s reality) be of interest?

  2. “What it adds up to — some say — is an unrepresentative city council. Some city watchers claim the system is unfair to poor and minority voters, as well as business interests. Awkwardly, Seattle’s council no longer has a single African-American member, though it has one Native American and three Hispanic Americans.”

    I’m gonna go with this paragraph being written in the most bad faith. It has competition though.

  3. It is not time to revisit the way we elect Seattle City Councilmembers.
    It is good to review how city hall functions and consider ways to improve it. Beyond that there are numerous flaws with Jean Gooden’s observations.
    For starters would we really, ever revise the City Charter based on an anonymous quote. Think about that, somebody somewhere said such-and-such so we should change how half a million people vote.
    Next, I would point out that these days more Seattleites are complaining about their prominent politicians than how some of them were elected. This is something that has been in the news lately.
    It is true that many candidates “end up paying allegiance to the interest groups that helped elect them”. This was also true under the At-Large system and could be said of any level government. It is a sad given of our politics and not a specific reason to abandon Districts.
    Another anonymous critic thinks “Districts are fragmented”. This misses the point that Districts were created to recognize the diversity of Seattle neighborhoods. Also, if grouping diverse neighborhoods together is bad, would it not be the worst option to group all of the diverse neighborhoods together in an at-large system?
    Awkwardly, the last time Godden was elected she defeated and an African-American for her third term in 2011. Readers should also remember she lost in the primary when she ran for a fourth time under the Districts system in 2015.
    Directly quoting Godden, “Voters finally said “yes” after two business women (Suzie Burke and the late Faye Garneau) spent several million on an initiative.” The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission records that Garneau donated $256,504 and Burke donated $5,400. This does not total “several millions”. We also know that Godden knows how to research details like these and add numbers. Her deliberate distortion about the funding is simply Trumpian.
    Godden points out the city has grown and that this growth has not been uniform in all Districts. The Districts will be redrawn and rebalanced following the census. This is the same procedure used for Congress, the State Legislature and King County. It has been this way our entire lives.
    It is true that the money in Council races has increased. This is largely the result of the voter approved voucher program and the rise of independent expenditures. Neither of these issues were part of the move to Districts. The backers of Districts never claimed it was the final reform our politics needed.
    Back to “rumors” of people “doing something”, that’s fine, anyone can start a campaign if they like. Going from talk to action is the little thing that trips up most idle talk schemers. Would changing the numbers of At-large seats bring any positive change? Is it even top of mind when Seattle voters are surveyed about what needs to be fixed these days? Most Seattle voters could probably suggest higher priorities.
    At the end of the article seems to call for Campaign Finance Reform. That is something that would interest Seattle voters but not something she focused on during her decade on the City Council.
    Zander Batchelder
    Booster for Districts

  4. Dave Montoure: Your version strikes me as a way to further marginalize the city council. Reminds me of Chicago, where the Mayor is firmly in charge, and of the King County Council, a retirement home for legislators, where the Executive runs the show. Maybe we should just select city councilmembers by lottery?

  5. In no way have I proposed another way of electing councilmembers, even though I personally lost in 2015 only when the city adopted districts. Right or wrong, I am retired but think of myself a reporter and wanted to report there is dissatisfaction with the present system backed by Susie Burke and the late Faye Garneau. Maybe all Seattle believes the present system is great; but there is no reason not to discuss how it could be better.

  6. So Jean is upset that the Downtown Seattle Association no longer controls the Council. Perhaps she should return to writing a gossip column.

  7. As Jean Godden observes, the way we elect Seattle City Councilmembers affects who
    gets elected – and who gets represented. Seattle’s City Council appears to represent special interests more than the voters. Small businesses and low-income communities both feel underrepresented.

    Seven seats are elected by district, and two elected at large. Districts would work if communities of interest were segregated by geography, but that’s not the case. How can communities of interest vote together and gain representation on the Council?

    There’s a simple change to the way we vote that gives proportional representation: a form of ranked-choice voting. Yakima County residents are suing Yakima County over the lack of minority representation on the Yakima County Council. The lawsuit recommends proportional representation as a voting rights remedy.

    Seattle is a leader in democracy vouchers, and vote-by-mail. Let’s lead in ranked-choice voting and get better representation on the City Council. Ask your state legislators to support the Local Options bill, so that local jurisdictions can use ranked-choice voting.

    • @ Kit Muehlman:

      If your goal is to flood Seattle’s ballots with QAnon crazies, and sooner or later to elect one or more of them through name familiarity, then yes, by all mans, let’s have ranked choice voting.

      Or better yet, let’s drive a stake through the heart of this cockamamie scheme.

      • Ivan Weiss,
        Thank you for your concern about crazies in politics. Fortunately, in places where ranked-choice voting is used, they report more civility in elections.
        Our current voting system drives voters into one of two corners, and discourages level headed discourse.


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