A light blue SPD police cruiser in a parking lot.
Public safety debates should hinge on more than police funding levels. (Photo credit: zeraien via Wikimedia Commons)

The votes have all been tallied and the red wave has officially folded in on itself, leaving even more blue shore than before in Washington State. Crime was supposed to be the wedge issue for conservatives this cycle, but it ended up getting them nowhere. Already with commanding majorities, Democrats held all their seats, won a U.S. House seat, a state senate seat, and a state house seat (more on that here).

A message than nearly every Republican hammered home, whether the most establishment or fringe, was that they would get tough on crime and give police free rein, but their opponent was allegedly soft, criminal-loving, and vaguely associated with the defund the police movement. Based on results, the message didn’t resonate.

No race laid bare this dynamic more than the contest for King County Prosecutor. Leesa Manion ran on staying the course and embracing (albeit in a measured way) alternatives to punitive justice, such as Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Federal Way Mayor Jim Farrell, a former Republican now identifying as a Democrat, ran for the prosecutor role on tough-on-crime policies, more prison sentences, and opposing LEAD. Initially pegged as a nailbiter, Manion’s victory was by 18 points — a true drubbing.

Many pundits had claimed Seattle’s 2021 election — in which two candidates who openly identified as prison abolitionists were rejected and Seattle instead elected a Republican City Attorney — was supposed to show that tough-on-crime politics was back in a big way and progressives were out of step. That narrative now seems highly premature and suspect — even if one of its biggest beneficiaries — Seattle’s newest city councilmember in Sara Nelson — continues to cite it this budget season.

The Urbanist Elections Committee (on which I serve) made Manion our top-billed endorsement for our General Election because of significance the race holds for the region getting public safety policy right and grappling with the nuance in our debate. Electing Ferrell would have taken us backward and potentially unleashed a wave of punitive policymaking and opportunistic politics. Thankfully voters agreed by a resounding margin.

Even-year elections would improve the public safety debate

Well-funded candidates appealing to conservative backlash can have major success in odd-year municipal elections, when the electorate skews more conservative. However, forced to defend their ideas (as stale as they may be) around public safety (not to mention housing and homelessness) in even-year elections can be a tougher slog for conservatives and centrists. In even years, the electorate is much larger and more representative than the general population, especially compared to odd-year electorates when Whites and wealthy homeowners have outsized influence.

A caption reads "Areas in blue vote in municipal election years at a higher rate relative to the city as a whole than they do in presidential years, and areas in orange at a lower The effect is an electorate that is skewed towards voters in the blue area and away from the voters in the orange areas." The areas in blue tend to the wealthiest areas in the county. The areas in orange are some of the more racially diverse and tenant-heavy areas.
Odd-year elections empower wealthier voters with water views, based on recent results. Areas with relatively high turnout are show in blue, but areas seeing the biggest drop in turnout in odd years are shown in orange. The orange areas are largely apartment-heavy working class neighborhoods and tend to be communities of color. (Map by Elliott Day)

And this goes a long way toward explaining the opposition to even-year election reform. Holding mayoral and city council races in even years levels the playing field in a way that likely wouldn’t be favorable to centrist and conservative candidates. The centrist political machine may need a whole new script to dominate elections. And we can’t have that can we!

Nonetheless, the 2022 election also provided us with a strong data point that even-year elections are very popular. King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci sponsored legislation putting even-year election reform on the ballot for King County Executive, County Council, and Assessor races. Voters overwhelmingly supported it to the tune of 69%. Unfortunately state law preempts municipalities from going the route of King County (and many other counties) in running their local elections on even years instead of odd ones. But the state legislature can and certainly should fix this, as Rep. Mia Gregorson (D – SeaTac) proposed doing last session.

Centrist success in the last three Seattle mayoral races can be traced to many factors (some of them self-inflicted by progressives) and certainly there’s no one fix for the progressive side. Winning at the mayoral level will require doing better on a number of fronts. But clearly even-year elections would be a fairer way to run things and a good rallying point to let the political debate go where most people are at simply than a smaller subset of high-propensity voters that dominate odd-year elections.

Police accountability isn’t just a Seattle issue

The countywide victory for Manion also shows that punditry that portrays police accountability and criminal justice reform as a niche Seattle issue is also off base. On the post-election election episode of her Hacks and Wonks podcast, Crystal Fincher (who is also a board member at The Urbanist) drove this point home.

“So this never has been as sometimes it is characterized as, well, just those super lefties in Seattle care about like comprehensive public safety and addressing root causes of crime and issues like that,” Fincher said. “Over and over again, we have seen at the ballot box and in polling that voters across the county do care about accountability, that whether or not they want more police or not, they all — and I’m using the term all in a near literal sense — 80+ percent when folks at the ballot box are saying, but we also want alternate responses. We understand that, hey, even if I have no issue with an officer, and I think that it’s appropriate to call an officer at some period and at some point in time — that when it comes to an issue of someone having a behavioral health crisis, or if someone is unhoused, or if someone is dealing with complex family issues, that sometimes an armed police response is just not equipped to do that, right?”

Much of the political debate had been flattened out to an unhelpful binary of defund: yes or no? with little nuance beyond that. It seems like voters are increasingly ready to deal with that nuance rather than subsist on sloganeering, one way or the other.

“And I think that the public conversation in the media has been – well, is it defund or not? Do you back the blue or not? – and it’s very binary, shallow conversation,” Fincher added. ‘But most voters recognize that it’s not an either or most of the time it’s an and situation. And what we have done is invested a lot in some portions of the necessary public safety puzzle and have starved other areas. And so we better get to taking action on addressing some of these root causes, on enabling appropriate response.”

Leesa Manion is the new King County Prosecutor after defeating Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell. She served as chief of staff under her predecessor, Dan Satterberg. (Photo courtesy of campaign)

Political consultant Dujie Tahat agreed with Fincher’s point, and added that King County voters by and large don’t appear to blame the reform-minded diversionary programs for whatever frustrations they may have about public safety and an uptick in violent crime.

“Leesa Manion represents an extension of the current prosecuting attorney and people seem really happy with Satterberg,” Tahat said. “And I think to our point of being able to hold two competing thoughts at once and not giving into the binary, I think Satterberg is actually a pretty good exemplar of somebody who’s started off as a Republican during the era of punitive, just punitive, policy, to someone who is advocating very much for diversion programs. And you’re seeing this also coming off of a King County electorate that just passed a bunch of charter amendments to improve policing in 2020. So you’re seeing, I think, an electorate that is primed to have these nuanced conversations in a way that is totally divorced, I think, from the coverage. Like you pointed out, the narratives are what they are, but the electorate is continuing to have a more nuanced take and make it really, really abundantly clear that it actually — it’s not even either-or, and it’s not even really all that close, right?”

Beyond being another data point pointing toward even-year election reform, the 2022 election also showed that overcorrecting in even years based on odd-year results is also a bad idea. This played out in a big way with Democrats working to roll back some of their signature police accountability measures passed in 2021 in a 2022 session when they fretted about blowback and political implications in the upcoming Midterm election.

“Clearly there was some advice given with that, but – look, Democrats, Republicans are going to call you lawless, criminal-loving, all of that regardless of what you do,” Fincher said. “And as we talked about it on the show before, it was absolutely predictable that even though they did roll those back, Republicans attacked Democrats as if there was no rollbacks and as if nothing had happened. So instead of acting defensive and scared of what you are doing, do the right thing. Make the case for doing the right thing. Take the case to the voters. If you are actually connected to community, you can do that with credibility, right? And with success. But just looking at a poll and going – uh oh, this looks scary, we better backpedal and – yeah, that was a frustrating thing to watch happen.”

We have to start pedaling forward and defending our values to see true progress on public safety, housing, climate, and every other hot button issue. Even-year elections across the board seems like an easy way to start building momentum and sharpening the debate.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.