By Stephan Yhann
In American politics, it’s hard to come by big change. The kind of change that rewrites the rules of the game.
Last November, Seattle took that challenge.
In the 2013 general election, Seattleites made history by electing the city’s first gay mayor and a socialist city councilmember. They also passed Charter Amendment 19, bringing an end to a century-long political era.
While Charter Amendment 19 didn’t receive as much attention as last year’s mayoral and city council races, it has the biggest potential to alter the political landscape of the city. The measure — which passed a by 2-1 margin — altered the way that the city elects its councilmembers and will take effect for the 2015 elections.
Since 1910, Seattleites have elected their council members the same way they elect their mayor: city-wide. Starting in the 2015 elections, seven members will be elected by their own district and two members will be elected by voters at large. To implement the system, every position on the council will be up for election in 2015, setting up a grueling campaign schedule for some members who just won reelection city-wide in November.
According to University of Washington Professor Luis Fraga, who studies city politics and voting rights, this method is one of three systems for electing city councilmembers: Single Member Districts, At Large and Hybrids.
A Single Member Districts system divides a city into geographic districts and allows each district to elect one person to represent it.
“It is like the way we elect candidates to the United States Congress,” he said. “The nation is divided into geographical areas and only people who live in those areas get to vote for those candidates.”
Conversely, an At Large system seeks to do away with districts, Fraga said. It requires that each candidate for city council run city-wide, just like the mayor. For more than a century, Seattle has chosen all of it’s nine city councilmembers using an At Large system.
The new Seattle election format is called the Hybrid system, as it blends elements of both a districted and At Large system together.
“The logic behind a Hybrid system,” Fraga said, “is that it combines the best of a Single Member District system with the best of an At Large system.”
A districts system takes neighborhood nuances into account. It assumes that different areas have different constituencies with different interests, and creates a representative for each. An At Large system emphasizes city-wide needs. In theory, by using both methods, both sets of viewpoints will be represented on the council.
Current councilmember Sally Clark is one such candidate. She’s unsure of what the change will mean for voters and office-seekers.
“The complicated thing for Seattle is that nobody really knows what its like to run in a district,” she said.
While that may be the case for candidates, Seattle’s political consultants and campaign staff do have an idea of how the changes impact council races in 2015.
John Wyble, a campaign consultant who worked on the 2013 reelection campaigns of Mayor Mike McGinn and councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, predicts that the change will increase the importance of a campaign’s ground game, bringing more candidates to voters’ doorsteps.
“I think doorbelling will be a part of every campaign,” he said. “That will be the biggest change as the districts are small enough that councilmembers can go to every door.”
That sentiment was echoed by William Dow, who managed councilmember Nick Licata’s 2013 reelection campaign through the August primary election.
“It’s easy for young candidates to get outgunned at the city-level, so I suspect in some ways districts will really help level the playing field,” Dow said. “It will be interesting to see what kind of district-level field organization a candidate can employ, and whether a candidate with little money but a lot of manpower […] can do some damage in an election.”
One reason for the increased focus on door-to-door politics is the issue of scale. Seattle has over 400,000 registered voters, making it difficult for a city-wide campaign to make contact with many voters during an election. Under the new plan, each of the city’s seven districts will hold much fewer voters, allowing for greater personal contact between candidates and constituents.
Finances will pose another challenge.
“City council candidates really struggle to raise enough money to get their message out while the mayoral candidates are continually receiving the lion’s share of the press attention,” Wyble said. “For the city council, you rely on a simple narrative, meeting with people and saving as much money as possible for paid communication.”
In 2013, city council candidates raised a combined total of $942,464, with three candidates reporting no raised funds at all. Between all ten candidates, the average raised was $94,246.
If you exclude candidates that raised no funds, that average jumps to $134,637 per candidate.
In a city-wide campaign, that leaves the average candidate with 32 cents to spend per registered voter.
Pointing to the fact that councilmembers who just won reelection in 2013 will have to run again in 2015, Clark said the compressed campaign calendar could also cause trouble for candidates.
“I can say from some experience that having to run quickly… [means] that you have to do everything on a more compressed calendar,” she said. “You’re doing all the same things and you’re doing it really quickly.”
Dow, however, suggested districts might reduce the fundraising burden for some candidates.
“While people will likely still be hitting up donors from around the entire city [and] region for campaign contributions, they’ll be able to focus their energy and resources on their district, as opposed to the whole city,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest change will be between the council members themselves.
Under the new scheme, only two of the nine council positions – numbers eight and nine – will be elected by At Large. As of Tuesday, both past council president Sally Clark and her successor, Tim Burgess, had filed to run in one of those seats. In an email, Councilmember Nick Licata said that if he seeks re-election in 2015, he will run for an At Large seat as well.
“Haven’t decided yet,” he wrote in an interview conducted via email.
If he does seek a city-wide seat, it will mean that two incumbents who have never run against each other will end up doing so next year.
Fraga said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more tension on the council as a result.
“I would expect it, just because people are now competing with each other,” he predicted. “Whether that will lead to the campaign being usually harsh, unusually negative, I don’t know. It depends very much on the personalities.”
Clark, however, was confident that the potential for a showdown wouldn’t have an effect on the councilmembers’ rapport.
“We have good relationships with each other and we certainly understand that we have jobs to do together,” she said. “It’s about how you present yourself to voters, and voters will make that choice.”
Infographic: In 2013, Seattle City Council candidate raised an average of $94,246 during the campaign, according to campaign finance disclosures. Some expect a move to a district-based council may decrease that sum by as early as 2015, making it easier for younger candidates to win.