After Stranger-endorsed candidate for King County Prosecutor, Leesa Manion, swamped Seattle Times-endorsed Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell in November’s election, several local pundits spilled plenty of digital ink wondering how to square that result with last year’s rejection of abolitionist candidate for Seattle City Attorney, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.
While some circumstantial factors explain some of the shift from last year’s election results, those pundits have missed the most important one: the change in the electorate itself. Voter turnout jumps significantly in even year elections, particularly among lower income voters and renters who tend to support progressive policies by significant margins.
With the results from this year’s election certified and precinct-level data now available, we can see exactly where in Seattle turnout changes the most between odd and even year elections. Spoiler alert: the results really are not great for progressive candidates aiming to challenge incumbents on the Seattle City Council next year.
Some Caveats about Comparing Election Results
First, some caveats about this data. I’m using the turnout in Seattle from 2021’s City Attorney election and this year’s race for King County Prosecutor as a point of comparison for several reasons. Neither race was at the top of the ballot, both races were nonpartisan, Seattle’s major media outlets weighed in on opposing sides in both contests, both Manion and NTK were first-time candidates with low name recognition, and both argued for restorative justice policies instead of more reliance on jail.
Still, as is true in comparing any two elections, there are some circumstantial factors that make this an imperfect apples-to-apples comparison. Manion came from the establishment, while NTK was a challenger from the left. Manion ran a relatively milquetoast campaign in contrast to NTK, who played permanent defense while her mean tweets from 2020 telling the cops to “eat COVID-laced shit” dominated headlines. And while progressive labor organizations rallied around NTK in the final days of the election, Manion had much more institutional support from the beginning of her race. (Full disclosure: I consulted on NTK’s campaign in the last five weeks of the general election.)
It’s the Turnout, Stupid
Even with those circumstantial differences acknowledged, the huge jump in turnout explains the difference in outcome more than any of those factors. Nearly 334,000 people in Seattle voted in this year’s general election compared to about 267,400 in last November’s election. That’s a difference of around 66,500 votes, which represents a 25% increase over last year’s turnout in the city. Put another way, a bare majority (55%) of the city showed up in last year’s election while this year’s contest drew a much more representative sample with 69% turnout.
The real problem for Seattle progressives, according to local political consultant Michael Fertakis, is who those 66,500 voters are and where they live.
As the precinct-level data shows, residents of wealthier, whiter areas near the water, where more people own homes, consistently turn out at a rate of 60% or higher in odd and even-year elections. The voters who live in more diverse precincts with lower incomes and higher percentages of renters tend to stay home when there’s only local offices on the ballot. The added difficulty of canvassing apartment buildings to remind those infrequent voters to return their ballots also plays a role in the turnout gap.
“If progressives want to have a shot at winning, they have to really focus on turning out low-turnout voters and having policies that are progressive but can’t be construed as radical to scare consistent voters,” Fertakis said in an interview. “It’s a really fucking difficult thing, to be perfectly blunt.”
Looking at the difference in turnout between the two races, Fertakis eyed next year’s contest for the District 1 city council seat as a particularly tough challenge for the progressive in the race. The district covers West Seattle and parts of SODO, and it includes some of the neighborhoods with the greatest jump in turnout from odd years to even years.
“I’d be really worried if I were a progressive in District 1 right now, based on these results,” Fertakis said.
A Structural Solution
Buying into the civility politics game isn’t the only way for Seattle progressives to juice their odds of victory in future city elections, however. They could follow the King County Council’s lead and lobby for a statewide law to move city elections to even years. In Fertakis’s opinion, that would present its own set of challenges for progressives, but the benefits would likely outweigh those costs.
He pointed out that progressive candidates without established fundraising bases could face more difficulty raising money from donors while competing with asks from federal and statewide candidates.
However, considering that progressives generally spend a bigger chunk of their campaign cash on turning out infrequent voters rather than on persuading consistent voters, switching to even-year elections could allow cash-strapped progressive candidates to win competitive races. For proof of that concept, look no further than Representative-elect Darya Farivar’s victory in this year’s 46th Legislative District House race.
The takeaway for next year’s city council elections? “If people turn out, we can get progressive shit done,” Fertakis said. “But to turn people out, we have to have candidates who inspire them without alienating huge swaths of the people who always vote.”
Or we could just stop having elections when we know fewer people will show up.