Election results are in for Whatcom County, Washington, where a proposal for a giant coal export terminal puts communities on the front lines of the fight against dirty energy. Thanks to a flood of money from coal interests, voters approved a coal-backed proposition to change the county voting system to district-only voting. This plan likely would have locked in a pro-coal majority on the council if voters had not also approved a competing measure. The competing measure instructs the county redistricting commission to draw district boundaries that look roughly like the map below. Under the coal-backed plan, voters would have ended up voting in three districts with boundaries gerrymandered to dilute the urban vote and give pro-coal conservatives a majority on the council.
Coal won district-only voting, but it lost gerrymandered districts.
Under the new five-district plan, voters in urban Districts 1 and 2 will probably elect progressive councilors; voters in rural Districts 3 and 4 will likely elect conservative councilors; and coastal District 5 will be a toss-up. Because the county as a whole leans left, the two at-large councilors are likely to be more progressive. In the end, the anti-coal representatives will likely end up with four or five of seven seats.
In sum: despite another round of big spending by fossil-fuel interests, Whatcom voters managed to prevent them from locking in pro-coal gerrymandering.
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In the same election, the competing redistricting proposals were joined by a raft of measures that changed the rules of the game for revising districts: a contest over the rules for changing the rules. The outcomes of these votes have reset the odds for achieving proportional representation voting in Whatcom in the future. Voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to make it easier to amend the County Charter via citizens’ initiative. They more narrowly approved three proposals making it harder for the Charter Review Commission and the County Council to propose Charter amendments and nearly impossible (requiring a unanimous vote) for the County Council to propose changes to county voting systems. The upshot of these changes will be to put citizens themselves in the driver’s seat for any future changes in Whatcom County voting methods.
In the nearer term, Democratic-leaning officials have taken almost complete control of the Whatcom County Council. Western Washington University professor (and progressive) Todd Donovan comfortably won the District 1 seat and, even in the low-turnout election, progressive Satpal Sidhu edged out Republican-endorsed Kathy Kershner for the District 2 seat. The County Council will consist of six Democratic-leaning councilors plus Barbara Brenner, who is politically independent.
Tuesday’s outcome is good for anti-coal advocates, but it’s not good for democracy. A county with 40-45 percent Republican-leaning voters has zero Republican-aligned councilors?! Too bad Republican leaders in Whatcom tried to grab disproportionate representation on the council. If they had supported, rather than buried, proportional representation, conservatives would likely win three seats instead of zero.
Thanks for the simple explanation of a very confusing issue. A lot of people in Whatcom county are still asking “so, did we win?” This helps. If I may add a little context to the story on a couple of points…
Low turnout is a relative statement and I have to stand up for our gotv team. While it’s true that the turnout was only 46.9% in Whatcom, that compares to 35.5% in king, 42.7% in Skagit, 33.2% in Snohomish and 36.9% statewide. It was a low turnout year with mostly only local elections, and in our case a very confusing ballot. A large part of the electoral success of local activists in Whatcom county the past few years has been in getting infrequent voters — those who might otherwise only vote in presidential election years — to understand the significance of local elections.
The conclusion that republicans would have done better with proportional representation is perhaps mathematically true. But their real problem is that the party is controlled by extremist who recruit and run candidates from that end of the spectrum. Historically, and even this year, conservatives have been able elect moderates to the county council. Barbara Brenner, although unaffiliated with a party, is a property rights advocate and quite conservative fiscally. A retiring council member, Sam Crawford was elected in at-large voting 4 times over the past 16 years in-part because he had a number of moderate positions that deviated from his base – perhaps most famously supporting the lake Whatcom reconveyance. The republicans’ main problem isn’t that the election rules or boundaries aren’t fair, but that they are running candidates and ideas that don’t appeal to the majority of voters.
Thanks for the context, Alex.
One of the benefits of proportional representation is that it makes voters less dependent on the two major parties. The current system gives voters an all-or-nothing choice between two parties, so if the Republican Party only puts up extremist candidates, regular conservative voters have no good options. Proportional representation would give mainstream conservatives outside the Republican party a chance to run and mainstream conservative voters a chance to elect candidates aligned with their views.