A Kshama Solidarity volunteer who translates the council members message into Mandarin.
A Kshama Solidarity volunteer who translates the council member's message into Mandarin throws up a peace sign. The campaign stepped up its multilingual canvassing this year to reach as many voters as possible.

The fate of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is in the hands of her constituents – or rather, in the hands of the constituents who know about the Dec 7 recall election. The Recall Sawant campaign missed the deadline to put the issue on the ballot for the November general election, which drew a record-breaking turnout (about 55% of registered voters) for an off-year election. Now, District 3 voters will decide whether to recall or retain the only socialist council member in the city’s first-ever December special election, and both campaigns are doing whatever it takes to scrounge for every last vote.

Special elections do not typically bring out voters in droves. Seattle last held a special election in February of 2019 to vote on two Seattle School District propositions. Only 32% of Seattle voters cast a ballot in that election. In the November general election of that year, 60% of voters turned out and re-elected Sawant.

Citing the history of low engagement in special elections, Sawant’s camp has routinely accused the Recall Sawant campaign of purposely attempting to suppress the vote.

“They don’t want a normal November election because that’s when most people vote,” said Sawant at an Aug. 2 rally. “They don’t want working people, people of color, young people or renters to vote. They feel, correctly so, that the only way they can win is an election dominated by the wealthiest, whitest possible electorate.”

Henry Bridger II, the recall’s campaign manager, said the winter election cannot be voter suppression because of Washington's mail-in voting system: Ballots come right to mailboxes with return postage included.

Still, both campaigns have tried new strategies to rile up their bases in this unprecedented election.

Volunteers from Sawant’s crew said the campaign is confident in its politics, but not so confident in the expected turnout. In an effort to reach more voters, the campaign cast its net wider than ever by sending out multilingual canvassers to reach people who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Amharic, Somali, Swahili, and Oromo – King County doesn’t even print ballots in Oromo.

The literature
The literature HK

“Our biggest goal with [multilingual canvassing] is making sure that these communities that are being intentionally overlooked by the recall campaign, and just typically overlooked by political campaigns in general, really feel like they're participating in the democratic process,” said Helen V., a volunteer with the Kshama Solidarity campaign.

The county sends ballots in English by default, unless otherwise specified. A representative from King County Elections said the agency does not field many language-change requests in an election this small. For this election, 170 District 3 voters received ballots in Chinese, 92 in Vietnamese, 27 in Spanish, and 17 in Korean.

Sawant’s team identified 2,200 D3 voters who likely do not speak English. To those doors, volunteers have brought translated Sawant literature and a portable printer. The canvassers said at nearly every outing they spoke with someone who needed a ballot printed in their first language.

A couple voters who opted to retain Sawant.
A couple voters who opted to retain Sawant.

A volunteer who gives Sawant’s spiel in Mandarin said many of the voters he has encountered told him they have never had a campaign come to their door and speak their language. Out of the campaign’s list of 2,200 voters who may have needed translation, the volunteers reported that 500 had cast their ballots.

Besides tapping into relatively overlooked demographics, Sawant’s canvassers have faced barriers in accessing their usual base: renters. Campaigns have always had trouble canvassing apartment buildings, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made the task even harder. Sawant’s crew said they target renters by setting up their tables near large apartment buildings and enlisting the help of eager residents. To spread their message inside buildings, Kshama Solidarity volunteers have given out apartment action kits full of voter registration forms and flyers to keep renters informed.

I wrote to the Recall Sawant campaign about its specific strategies to get out the vote ahead of what will likely be a low-turnout election. I will update if Bridger responds.

Early in its efforts to unseat the council’s most senior member, the Recall Sawant campaign tried some flashy strategies.

This summer, the Recall Sawant campaign put its message in the sky with a small plane towing a banner that asked constituents to recall the council member. Bridger told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that the plane flew around the entire district, which, according to Bridger, was “more cost effective” than propping up a stationary billboard or sending out several thousand mailers. Bridger also added that, despite criticism of the plane’s loudness, the plane “was not as obnoxiously loud as Sawant and the other Solidarity speakers yelling into a microphone with loud speakers during Sawant’s rally in the neighborhood on a Sunday morning.”

Since the sky-high display, the Recall Sawant campaign has returned to more tried and true tactics. Most recently, the new pro-recall PAC, A Better Seattle, spent $100,000 on a cable TV ad and $20,000 on mailers soon after the Washington Public Disclosure Commision lifted its contribution limit. Recall supporters continue to doorknock, wave signs, and phone bank according to posts on social media.

As of Thursday, 33.4% of D3 voters have returned their ballots. About a quarter of these voters are 65 or older, and county statistics show that the precincts with the highest turnout also voted overwhelmingly for the conservative winners of the general election last month. A delayed push from progressives, who tend to vote later, has saved Sawant in the past, but only time will tell if the Kshama Solidarity campaign has done enough to surmount what they believe amounts to voter suppression from the recall backers.