Every seat on the Seattle City Council is up for grabs this election season, the result of a 2013 voter initiative that established district elections in the city. The initiative established seven districts with fewer than 100,000 people in each.
Now, candidates vying to join the nine-member city council will have to run for a seat in their district or run city-wide for two at-large seats. And the candidates are piling up — even though the filing deadline with King County is in May. At press time, 37 candidates had filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC). Candidates have to file financial data with that office if they begin campaigning, even if they haven’t formally filed for candidacy.
In the district serving West Seattle, which will have an open seat, 10 candidates have filed. Open seats tend to attract more candidates, West Seattle’s lone councilmember, Tom Rasmussen, is not running for reelection.
“I think for a city council seat, that’s the most I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Wayne Barnett, director of SEEC.
It’s the largest number of candidates for a single seat since 1995.
On average, there are more candidates running per seat than the last two election cycles. So far, there is an average of 4.1 candidates for each seat, the highest since 2003. For the 2011 and 2013 elections, there was an average of roughly 2.5.
Even as candidates continue to announce their intentions, a few incumbents are not facing many challengers. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw remains unchallenged so far, and Councilmember Bruce Harrell has only one.
The large number of candidates creates a heap of work for the city’s three SEEC staff members dedicated to elections. That office typically sets aside two days to film a video voters’ guide of the candidates, Barnett said, but this year it will take six days.
The total number of candidates is due in part to every seat being up for election this year, which creates a complex cycle of upcoming elections. After the November election is over, half the councilmembers will need to run again in 2017, to return the council to its typical election cycle: five seats open for election one year, with the remaining up for election two years later. Each councilmember holds office for four years.
Matt Borreto, a former University of Washington political sciences professor,
said a large number of candidates is standard for district elections. For a candidate, the prospect of convincing a fraction of the city’s population is more attractive than running for a citywide seat.
In the past, competitive candidates in Seattle-wide elections would raise $90,000 to $250,000 to run.
In contrast, candidates running in districts can be competitive spending less money. The cost for mailers and staff for phone banking and doorbelling is cheaper in district elections, he said.
“When you have local district-based elections, it increases the number of candidates that run because it’s not as daunting a task as to run city-wide,” Borreto said. “You get more diversity of candidates. You get teachers, small business owners, community activists who decide to run instead of candidates who have downtown interests.”
Proponents of district elections say these results are promising for the new electoral system.
“I think it’s a great illustration of how concerned citizens are about how this city is run,” said Faye Garneau, primary sponsor and funder of the proposal that created district elections. “The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.”
Opponents of the measure worry that the seven-district system is bad for people of color. With the new map, people of color make up 77 percent of residents of just one district, District 2,
which covers Southeast Seattle. District 3 in the Central District is the next most racially diverse, where people of color make up just 31 percent of the population (“All over the map,” RC, Dec. 12, 2013).
Voters overwhelmingly supported district elections in 2013. The charter amendment proposal passed with 66 percent approval.