Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez will likely axe Council Member Teresa Mosqueda’s charter amendment proposal to stagger district city council elections on alternating odd years, which could help stabilize turnover in the city’s legislative branch.
Juarez didn’t respond to a request for comment, but we can attribute the policy’s failure to one of two things: a lack of democracy advocates liking or caring about the prospect, or–proving Mosqueda’s point–major turnover disrupting council business. That disruption, Mosqueda argues, limits the council’s ability to think long-term.
Splittin’ and Staggerin’
The City used to stagger elections before voters approved a citizen-run initiative to set up the district system in 2013. Currently, voters in all of the seven council districts pick a council member in the odd year before the presidential election; 2019, 2023, 2027, etc. Seattle voters pick their citywide representatives–the Mayor and two at-large council members–in the other odd year; 2017, 2021, 2025, which cannot come fast enough.
Mosqueda’s proposed charter amendment would put council districts 1, 3, 5, and 7 up for election in the odd year before the presidential election and then put districts 2, 4, and 6 up for election with the two at-large seats and the Mayor’s office.
Staggering elections in this way would prevent voters from switching out more than a supermajority of council seats all at once, though voters could still purge the majority in the election with the two at-large positions up for grabs alongside council districts 2, 4, and 6.
If the council ends up passing the amendment, then it will appear on the 2024 general election ballot, as voters need to approve charter amendments.
Spread the Love
Between 1946 and 2015, the council never swapped out more than three members at a time, with the exception of some turmoil in the late 1960s, when three council members died and two others resigned in the span of five years. But in 2015, when the charter changed and nine seats went up for re-election at once, the council saw its highest turnover election in recent history, gaining four new members that cycle. The council saw another four-person swap in 2019, the first election with seven seats up for grabs, as the charter intended.
This year, the council will change at least that much. Four council members in district seats decided not to run for re-election, three district incumbents will defend their seats in November, and Mosqueda, a citywide representative, will likely leave at the end of the year as the candidate favored to win her King County Council race. So, only one seat will for sure stay the same in 2024, at-large member Sara Nelson.
The media (including The Stranger lol) made a big deal about the possibility of totally shaking up the balance of power in City Hall. That narrative really got to Mosqueda–in a recent committee meeting she read off headlines about the big changes. She emphasized that she’s not advocating for no change to the council, she just wants to preserve institutional knowledge and promote continuity for longer projects.
When a council member takes office, they spend some time just getting adjusted to the new job. They have to learn the legislative process, figure out how fast their office chair can spin, find the bathroom, etc. If a bunch of council members are trying to find their bearings all at once, then the council could lose weeks or months of time to actually pass laws.
And even if the newbies get up and running quickly, a total reset on council limits long-term thinking, Mosqueda argued, because there’s no guarantee anyone will pick up or even remember a previous council member’s project. That dynamic leaves current council members scrambling to wrap up their legislative priorities–including work on this very legislation. Mosqueda speculated that the lack of long-term thinking kept her charter amendment off the calendar for an official public hearing.
Bigger Fish to Fry
None of the 2023 council candidates offered a strong opinion about Mosqueda’s staggered-elections proposal, so the election reform may be the next victim of that lack of continuity. Even Mosqueda only called the charter amendment a “nice-to-have.” Right now, she’s more worried about finding a champion for the JumpStart payroll tax and putting the Democracy Voucher Program (DVP) back on the ballot for its ten-year renewal.
All of the current council candidates participated in the DVP, so it would be a pretty bad look to get elected with public funds and then pull up the ladder on future candidates by keeping its renewal off the ballot.
JumpStart’s future appears less certain. The extent of support for progressive revenue divides the candidates in each race. If the more corporate candidates sweep, then they could pause the tax just like big business wants.
As Mosqueda searches for heirs to her legislative legacy, Nelson says she doesn’t see what the big deal is. In a committee meeting, Nelson argued that voters approved the district charter amendment in 2013, and so the council should not edit it without a “good reason.”
Eugene Wasserman, the campaign coordinator of Districts Now, the group behind the district amendment, said he really likes Mosqueda, but he has no clue what she’s doing with this proposal.
Mosqueda said no group asked her to propose the bill, but she worked on the policy with labor and the coalition behind the DVP, Honest Elections. Several other election reform advocates told The Stranger they did not have an official position on the policy.
Typically, these reformers advocate for policies that lead to more representative elections, so turnout is paramount. As proven by every election ever, more people vote in even years, particularly when the US elects a president. Mosqueda’s policy does not change local elections to even years. In fact, she scrapped the language that made it sound even remotely like a trigger law that would take effect if the state gives localities the authority to hold elections on even years.
The proposal also wouldn’t reduce the frequency of voting, which some argue would lead to more participation.
Mosqueda said she knows her proposal would not fix the issues of turnout on its own, and other sources seem to indicate it would not fix those issues at all, but she called the amendment a “stopgap” measure to fix just one issue. If the state gives cities more authority to control their elections, Mosqueda says, by all means, change the charter again!