In a normal zero-ending year, the attention of the United States at the beginning of April turns to the Census. Required by the Constitution, the Census may be groused at and argued about in court, but it always happens.

Of course, 2020 is not a normal year. But the Census rolls on, and will be inevitably followed by redistricting. Since being formed in 2013 for the 2015 election, this will be the first time that Seattle’s seven district-based council seats will be subject to reorganized boundaries.

As pointed out by Gene Balk in The Seattle Times, the city’s growth focused on some neighborhoods, so redistricting will be uneven. Seattle’s 7th District, represented by Andrew Lewis and containing Downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, grew by 33,000 people. The 5th District–with Debora Juarez representing Lake City, Bitter Lake, and Northgate–added 10,000 residents. All the other districts fall in between.

Breaking the growth down to districts misses one small fact. Seattle added more people than the population of any single council district in 2013. The original districts averaged 88,000 people. The total growth over the past decade was 120,000 people. The growth may be uneven, but it totals 140% the original district size.

Seattle added more people than a single city council district. We should be following that up by adding an actual city council district. Seattle needs a 10th councilmember.

The 10th Doctor was very good. A 10th Councilmember could be just as awesome. (Image BBC)
The 10th Doctor was very good. A 10th Councilmember could be just as awesome. (Image BBC)

Underrepresentation is a feature at all levels of government in the United States. The topic of increasing representative bodies frequently starts at the top. The House of Representatives has been capped at 435 members since 1929. In that year, one Representative was seated per 280,000 people. Now it’s closer to a Representative per 780,000 people. Compared to other developed countries, the United States is somewhere near 150 members of Congress short for our population.

It’s not quite that bad in Seattle. But each Seattle Councilmember represents a population larger than most Washington cities. Our population increase is comparable to the whole population of Kent, where there are seven councilmembers. Of the largest 20 cities in Washington for 2019, none exceed 35,000 people per seat, much less Seattle’s current 83,000 people per seat. Larger cities of Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Bellevue average around 25,000 people per seat. Smaller cities like Federal Way, Pasco, and Marysville average 12,000 people per seat. At those levels of representation, Seattle would have 30 councilmembers and 62 councilmembers respectively.

*This is different than the 88,000 people mentioned above. Calculations in this section are based on the entire council, not just the district-elected seats. That allows comparison between different jurisdictions that have different at-large and district formats.

Washington’s 20 largest jurisdictions with population per seat in 2010 and 2019.
Washington’s 20 largest jurisdictions with population per seat in 2010 and 2019.

Comparable cities across the country also have larger city councils, with a caveat. Big jurisdictions like New York City and Chicago have 50-member councils. Of the remaining top-25 largest cities, the average council size is 13 members. Cities that diverge from this are ones that have experienced very fast growth over the last decade. Such cities that are less than a million people, including Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso, and Columbus, do have less than 10-member councils. Of them, only Austin saw more change per-councilmember than Seattle.

The 25 largest cities in the United States with population per council seat and percent change, 2010-2019.
The 25 largest cities in the United States with population per council seat and percent change, 2010-2019.

Adding a tenth councilmember would make the council an even number, something that brings to mind gridlock and the need for a tie breaker. However, 10 of the largest 25 cities have even-numbered councils. Also, the current Seattle City Council doesn’t have many close votes. Out of 195 votes by this Council, only four had more than a single opponent. Only one vote failed.

The immediate reaction to expanding any public body is perpetually “what’s it going to cost for more of these people?” The going salary for a councilmember is $130,000 per year plus the staff of three to four people. The overall Legislative Department 2019 budget is $16.3 million with the vast majority going to the 99 full-time jobs. The budget for the entire Council operation is 0.2% of the City’s $5.9 billion budget. Another seat would cost about $560,000 or a 0.01% increase in the budget.

The 10th Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet...” sounds pretty antiquated when talking about wives and servants. Just as antiquated as not adding a 10th councilmember. (Image by Wikimedia Commons)
The 10th Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet…” sounds pretty antiquated when talking about wives and servants. Just as antiquated as not adding a 10th councilmember. (Image by Wikimedia Commons)

The second question is “Why?” That may be best answered by asking why did we settle at nine members in the first place? It appears that we just kind of fell into it. We spent twenty years between 1869 and 1890 tinkering with wards, expanding city boundaries, and switching between district reps and at-large councilmembers. Then in 1890, Seattle developed a Home Rule charter with a bicameral legislature which had nine members on a Board of Delegates and a separate 16-member House of Delegates. At the time, Seattle’s population of 42,000 people was represented by 25 people. Still not as representative as Aberdeen, but closer.

The bicameral legislature lasted a decade, and wards were abolished in 1910. The council settled back to nine at-large members. This coincided with the city’s voracious appetite for annexation and skyrocketing growth. By 1910, the city annexed Ballard and West Seattle, and the population was 237,000 people or 26,000 per councilmember. 

But the council stayed at nine members until 2013 with the adoption of Charter Amendment 19. (Pro Tip: Don’t Google anything with the number 19 these days.) This created the district system, but kept it within the existing framework of a nine-member council.

And that is where we stand today, a decade into the district councilmember experiment. Having seven councilmembers elected by district seems to be working, having made the 2019 election really interesting. We are experiencing the same accelerated growth that caused Seattle to try four different government forms over just as many decades at the turn of the last century. We can be just as bold.

Council District 1 is Southwest Seattle (west of the Duwamish River), District 2 is Southeast Seattle and the International District, Council District 3 includes Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central Area, Montlake, and Madison Park, District 4 is Northwest Seattle and Eastlake, District 5 is the far north, District 6 is greater Ballard and Greenwood, and District 7 is Downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia. (City of Seattle)
Council District 1 is Southwest Seattle (west of the Duwamish River), District 2 is Southeast Seattle, District 3 includes Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central Area, Montlake, and Madison Park, District 4 is Northwest Seattle and Eastlake, District 5 is the far north, District 6 is greater Ballard and Greenwood, and District 7 is Downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia. (City of Seattle)

Where would we carve a new district? There are a few options, starting with not actually adding a district. If we are happy with seven districts, that’s perfectly reasonable. Whenever the city adds more than 100,000 people in a decade, add another at-large member.

But if we choose to add another district, it will focus between the three districts that saw the most growth: Downtown and Capitol Hill. This has an added benefit. One of the original complaints against districts was that they “packed” minority populations into a single district, while “cracking” other neighborhoods–like Capitol Hill–apart. Giving fast-growing Capitol Hill a strong position in the new district would address those original issues.

Additionally, district populations must be relatively even, but not exactly. The 2013 districts were within a 5,000 person range, but it was the Downtown districts–Districts 3, 4, and 7–that were at the maximum end of that range. They started over 90,000 people while District 6 around Ballard, Loyal Heights, and Greenwood started at 86,000. The high starting point of Downtown districts exacerbated the disparities in growth. We know where growth is planned. Districts with higher planned population growth should start at the lower end of the district population range.

As important as the specifics is the process. To prepare for redistricting in 2023, the mayor and council will set up a five-member Districting Commission and a special master for establishing council boundaries based on the census. This must be done by October 21, 2022.

Or we can start the process immediately. Appoint the Districting Commission now to get a jump on doing this work. Give them an expanded mandate to analyze whether other positions in the city should be elected and should be based on districts. Let’s start with an elected police accountability board.

And that is really the point. We should not just question the people representing us, but also question the structure of that representation. We frequently treat certain concepts as inviolate. City boundaries. Number of council members. Budget categories. But at one point, these were all created by an actual human being. It should be our duty to interrogate whether they are representing our values or if they are a carryover from a different time. Adding councilmembers as our city grows is a recognition that we are a different city in different times. Seattle needs a 10th Councilmember.

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Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.

15 COMMENTS

  1. How would proportional representation work in a non-partisan election? Aren’t candidates seated on the basis of their parties’ vote shares? RCV and multi-member district(s) would still be an improvement, regardless.

    • There are different ways to do proportional representation. Ranked Choice Voting is one, and it works equally well with either a partisan or a non-partisan ballot.

  2. The proper population baseline is not 2010, but 2015, when districts were created. The idea was to create districts that were small enough to enable retail politics, that is, doorknocking, coffees and community meetings, rather than having to raise enough funds to pay a strategist for multiple citywide mailings. That size was thought to be 75,000 voters (not population). Knocking on 12,000 to 20,000 doors would be enough to win a Council seat. Representative districts, combined with democracy vouchers, returned city elections to the people. We can’t lose that personal touch.

    • The current district boundaries were based on 2010 census data, since that was the most recent reliable data available. There will be new district lines drawn, based on 2020 census data, before the next district elections in 2023~ so there’s time to add an 8th district, but voters would have to approve that in a city charter amendment.

  3. Excellent presentation of the arguments! Thank you Mr. Dubicki. I like the idea of adding another at-large per 100,000 over re-drawing the map. I’d rather have the Redistricting Commission align the School Board districts with the Council’s than play the politics of carving a new boundary just yet. We still have a hold-over incumbent from the old at-large system, so we can’t yet say district elections vote of 2013 has been fully implemented.

  4. I’d be keen to see a study on this, but I’d imagine districts tend to facilitate nimbysm, whereas at-large districts encourage decision making good for the city as a whole. I’d rather see another at-large seat than dividing up the city into parochial bits.

    I’m not sure the comparison to smaller cities makes sense. In a city like Federal Way, being on the city council is a part time job, and the connection between the representative and their constituents is direct and informal. For Seattle and other large cities (and counties), being on the city council is a full time job, and the size of the professional staff reflect that. Chicago is an interesting example, but the corruption association with aldermanic privilege suggests it’s not something we want to emulation; otherwise, Nashville appears to the only major city with significantly less population per seat.

    • Seattle is the size of a Congressional District. Competitive at-large election campaigns are hugely expensive. The only way at-large elections would make sense is with Ranked Choice Voting~ all candidates for all 9 positions on one bedsheets ballot, and voters rank their 1st choice, 2nd choice, etc. Cambridge Mass. has done this for decades, and a few other cities are finally joining in.

  5. Rather than adding a 10th council member, the simpler way to accomplish the writer’s goals would be to add an 8th council district and delete one of the 2 at-large council positions. This accommodates the matter of population growth in each council district while keeping a council of 9 members.

  6. It’s problematic to think increasing representatives per capita leads to better representation. The district based system inevitably leads to distortions in representation even in the absence of ‘cracking’ and ‘packing’ due to voter distributions (instead of urban v rural divide it could be called single-family versus multi-family). If we are to talk about the fairest or most equitable systems of representation it would be proportional representation or multi-member districts with rank choice voting.

    Yes, district based representation does localize decision-making and bring focus to neighborhoods that were often ignored when we had an at large system. However, districts also increase the likelihood of major legislation failing since the focus is on the district (and its perceived interests) not the city on the whole. More generally district based representative systems trend towards higher polarity and gridlock, which results in policy drift. It is no coincidence that the at large members pushed for increasing MHA while district based reps largely sought to curtail it (https://www.theurbanist.org/2019/02/14/mosqueda-gonzalez-and-juarez-push-for-bigger-mha-rezones-amid-amendment-debates/).

    It is also no coincidence that three of the most dysfunctional democracies globally have district based representation with first past the post electoral systems (UK, USA, and Brazil) whereas systems with proportional representation, like Germany and Sweden, have much more effective, consensus based governance. Obviously we have an elected executive in Seattle, which also tends to encumber effective policy making (presidential systems typically perform worse than parliamentarian in policy making).

    If you want more density/sustainability/equity, the better way would be to expand at large membership and make it multi-member selected via rank choice. The best would be to do away with districts altogether and move to proportional representation. Lowering the electoral threshold enables a much truer representation of voters views than any geographic or majority based electoral system, existing systems tend to exacerbate existing inequities since the minority of voters who voted for the loser effectively lose all representation. Imagine the viewpoints that would make it into council if it only took securing 11% (assuming 9 councilmembers) of voters at a large?

    • I like the idea of a citywide multi-member district for all nine councilmembers. Districts were an improvement over only at-large seats, but it’s pretty clear that the interests of Wedgewood don’t align with those of the UDistrict. However I would advocate for score voting over rank choice voting: https://www.starvoting.us/pr

      • Yeah, score voting is interesting, but I think problematic as it’s expressed in STAR since all the top vote getters would reflect the dominant ideology instead of representing the spectrum of views in proportion to their holding. A primary reason for multimember is to lower the threshold of entry so fewer votes are wasted and the ideological spectrum of a given district is captured. It really doesn’t make any sense to give anything but 5s or 0s in score voting since to do otherwise dilutes the strength of your preferences.

        In a closed primary (party primary) it would make more sense since your’e expressing preferences among relative equals who will then advance, but in an open primary a scoring system would likely reproduce first past the post outcomes since the dominant group (ideology) would get to express the preference with equal strength for each run off position, whereas RCV helps promote groups who views are less dominant. Score voting where you rank and sum (i.e. first choice is 5 points second is 4 etc.) would likely be an improvement on both RCV and STAR.

  7. So your proposal is another council member because other cities have more council members? Does it seem fair to taxpayers to increase the city budget by at least a million per year while we are on the verge of a recession? Let’s focus on the important things right now, like people losing their jobs, not being able to work, and police reform.

  8. Since this whole article is about districting you really should have included a map of the current districts.

    As for the idea itself if one must be added it should be a new district as opposed to an at-large member. The whole point of the districts was to give better representation to specific neighborhoods after the previous at-large method resulted in representatives essentially ignoring parts of the city since they could win re-election without them.

    • Good point and fixed. As his editor, Ray is great but he does tend to get distracted with things like Dr. Who and biblical references that he may neglect the most obvious image to include with the story. 🙂

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