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Seattle Times

The in-between election system Seattle needs
By James Vesely
January 20, 2002

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 politics.

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 good tipper.

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.

People pop 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.

For starters, 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 balloting.

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.

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