in-between election system Seattle needs
By James Vesely
At a seafood restaurant as fine as any, I had lunch with a
politician nearing the peak of his power and influence.
That was 30
years ago, in a big, Midwestern city where blue-collar Democrats
ruled the corridors of government even more thoroughly than the
alliance of left-wing, urbanite Democrats that now controls Seattle.
In those days, civilized adults were permitted to smoke and drink
over lunch, so the air of the restaurant was filled with gray haze
and the perfumes of a distillery. The talk was, above all, about
The politician was explaining to me that because they
didn't vote right, residents of an outlying township were not going
to get the sewer line they thought was coming their way. Looking
back, I can see this as an early form of growth management. The
lesson completed, the politician reached into the front pockets of
one of those tight suits men wore back then and hauled out a wad of
bills. No check had been presented and none would be for him at this
restaurant, but the politician, being a man of the people, was a
I gawked at the messy wad of bills he hauled from his
trouser leg twenties, fives, tens all in a lump of pale green.
"Sorry about this," the politician told me with an Irish wink, "but
this is how it comes in."
Naturally, nothing so coarse could happen
in Seattle, where politicians are pure as cane sugar and there are
no ward politics or political machines to brine the water.
"Actually, by the time you get this far West, most of the
mechanisms that created ward politics were stripped from the system.
It probably can't occur here anyway," said Todd Donovan, professor
of political science at Western Washington University. He has a book
coming out next year on representational government, and I called
him because I'm drifting toward the idea that Seattle should think
seriously about district elections for City Council.
their corks when the subject is brought up. My colleague, Joni
Balter, wrote on these pages that Seattle doesn't need a different
way of selecting members of City Council--the current system is
self-adjusting and does fine. But Donovan, without trying to tell
Seattle what it should do, gives a wider context.
Seattle is a little beefy to keep at-large council elections.
Donovan couldn't name another city this big that does citywide
elections. San Francisco has flopped back and forth between district
and at-large council members, but that city is very compact at
7-by-7 miles. And if Bellingham can have district elections without
turning into Trenton, why can't Seattle?
"The Progressives who
created many of the Western city governments were finished with
Eastern politics," Donovan said. "As you move West, you see more and
more of Eastern partisan government discarded more in Denver than
St. Louis and so-on. This is as far West as they went, so out here
you see nonpartisan candidates, weak mayoral systems and many things
the Progressive Era brought."
Donovan is more excited about the
in-between--the way candidates are selected in a system between
running in district elections or at-large. That's called cumulative
voting that guarantees minority representation. The way it works is
that everybody gets, say, four votes and can cast them all for one
candidate or spread them over four names on the ballot. Sometimes
known as bullet balloting ("Bullet for Bob!" shout the ads), the
system allows a smaller group of voters to cluster their votes for
boutique candidates. The result, says Donovan, is that in
cumulative-voting cities, candidates out of the mainstream can
usually capture one seat.
So far, Donovan said, Peoria and Amarillo
are the only two sizable cities that have turned to cumulative
Getting candidates from outside the mainstream would not
seem to be Seattle's problem. But I digress. What effect would
cumulative voting have on the city?
Among other things, it would
create single-issue blocs of voters who could win on a specific
agenda. The Monorail Party would surely get a candidate elected
through cumulative voting, perhaps finally silencing the constant
yapping that monorail gets no respect. As we saw in the last
election, it's very difficult to bump off an incumbent, and by
itself, incumbency produces weak challengers. Cumulative voting just
about guarantees that a minority candidate maybe even a moderate
Republican could get the single bloc of votes to win a seat.
District elections for Seattle may have sparked some growing
interest, at least that's what some people think at City Hall. But
the ramp is steep. Incumbents always fight it and the organized
interest groups that now dominate city politics have no reason to
change the system. Cumulative voting is too complicated to sway an
audience right away. It's the better system, but it takes a
demonstrated need for change, and there isn't one.
Seattle is stuck
believing that the ward politics Progressives left behind in Albany,
Chicago and Boston never made it here. Seattle has wards. They are
ideological and they keep competition out.
James Vesely's column appears
Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.