“Whatcom’s electoral options showcase how some voting systems enhance democratic representation, while others degrade it.”

A proposed new coal export facility just north of Bellingham, Washington, has created a furor of electoral activity as proponents and opponents of dirty fuels vie for control of the Whatcom County Council. But champions of representative democracy should also take notice: Whatcom’s electoral options showcase how some voting systems enhance democratic representation, while others degrade it.

In November, Whatcom voters will have the chance to vote on two potential amendments to the County Charter. The first would switch to district-only voting for six out of seven council seats with one seat at-large. The second would retain the current system of district-only primaries and countywide general elections, but would redraw the district boundaries to create five new districts in place of the current three. Unfortunately, voters will not have the opportunity this fall to vote on proportional representation because conservative Charter Review commissioners blocked it from going to the ballot.

What do voters want in a representative democracy? Voters expect 1) to elect councilors who reflect their views and 2) that the council overall will reflect the views of voters overall. Voters expect councilors 3) to be responsive to concerned citizens and 4) to work together to craft county solutions. Finally, voters might hope 5) that regular people, like them, could run for office.

District-only voting falls flat on each of these five voter aspirations. (In the next two articles in this series, I will look at how five-district countywide voting and proportional representation voting fare.)

1. Can I elect one or more councilors who represent my views?

With district-only, winner-take-all voting, the majority of voters elect a district representative. But what if you are in the minority in your district?

Each district has a mix of voters. The map below shows how Democratic (blue) or Republican (red) or mixed (purple) each precinct’s votes were in the 2012 presidential election. The dots indicate people: Bellingham and Lynden are densely populated, while other precincts are not.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

If you are one of the roughly 30 percent of conservative voters in District 1 or the roughly 45 percent of liberal voters in Districts 2 and 3, your district councilors will not represent your political views. The at-large representative will likely lean liberal, so if you are a conservative in District 1 you will be out of luck. No one you voted for will win. If you are a liberal in District 2 or 3, you will likely have only the liberal at-large representative to field your calls.

2. Will the council accurately reflect voters?

Whatcom consistently votes about 5560 percent Democrat, so a seven-member council reflecting voters would have four Democrats and three Republicans. Past election data indicate that district-only voting could instead lead to a council with four or five Republicans—both seats from Districts 2 and 3 and maybe the at-large seat. If the 2005, 2009, and 2013 elections had used district-only voting, Republicans would have won all six races in Districts 2 and 3.

The unrepresentative pendulum of district-only voting could also swing the other way.

In 2009, countywide voting elected Republican Kathy Kershner, but Democrat Dan McShane would have won a District 1-only election by almost 2:1.

“What do voters want in a representative democracy?”
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More important, Whatcom County overall is becoming more liberal. Although District 3 usually votes around 47 percent Democratic in county elections, in the high turnout election of 2012, District 3 voted 53 percent for Obama, and 51 percent Democratic across all state and federal races. Even usually safely conservative District 2 voted 48 percent for Obama. If both districts added just a few hundred more Democratic votes or boosted turnout (through, for example, automatic voter registration), Democrats could sweep the council. A 100 percent Democratic council would be an unfair and inaccurate result for a county with a lot of conservative voters.

  • District-only voting elects unrepresentative councils. That might be good for one political party in one election, but it is bad for representative democracy.

    3. Will councilors be responsive to my concerns?

    Want to talk to a county councilor after district-only voting? Good luck with that.

    Whatcom County tried district-only voting in the 2007 election. Long-time council member Barbara Brenner won the election in District 3 but found that district-only councilors started saying, “I don’t care. It’s not in my district.” If the US Congress is any indication, district-only voting may even mean representatives stop accepting comments from people outside their districts.

    Whatcom voters quickly realized that four out of seven council members no longer cared what they thought. In 2008, Whatcom hastily voted to go back to countywide voting. In the recent Charter Review Commission process, many people testified that they don’t want to give up their right to vote for all councilors.

    4. Will councilors work together for the good of the county?

    Barbara Brenner found after the 2007 district-only election that councilors were less concerned about the good of the county as a whole. Many Whatcom voters also remember the experience from 2007, and they testified to the Charter Review Commission on June 8, 2015 that district-only voting would encourage councilors to promote parochialism above the greater good.

    5. Will regular people be able to run for office?

    As is true across North America, running for office requires a lot of money and incumbents with name recognition have a big advantage over challengers.

    Republican-leaning Charter Review Commissioner and Ferndale City Council member Jon Mutchler thought district-only voting might help. Mutchler hypothesized that it could cost less to run because district-only voting would mean “one-third of the number of signs they have to purchase, one-third the number of fliers they have to mail out, one-third the number of doors they have to knock on. It seems to me it makes elections more affordable and possibly attracts more people to run for these county races.”

    Sounds good. Unfortunately, it’s false.

    Campaign costs are driven by how important the election is. California has 68 times as many people as Wyoming but spends less than three times as much on US Senate campaigns, because a senator is a senator. Seattle is discovering that, despite the promises of promoters, district-only races don’t cost less than citywide races. The infographic at the bottom of this page shows that the citywide race for Seattle City Council Position 9 is one of the less expensive campaigns, while Kshama Sawant’s district-only race for District 3 is by far the most expensive, outpacing spending in almost all recent citywide campaigns.

    In Whatcom, the three district-only campaigns in 2007 cost about the same (approximately $145,000) as the three countywide campaigns in 2011. The 2013 Whatcom County elections cost more than three times as much (over $1 million in total expenditures) as the previous 10-year average costs not because they had to reach more voters, but because there was such an important issue at stake in the 2013 election—the coal terminal.

    Let Whatcom be a lesson for you

    District-only, winner-take-all voting leads to unrepresentative, gridlocked governments. Whatcom voters should resist, and voters across Cascadia should beware.