Wednesday, November 22, 2017
BRONZE RULE: Let’s call it the Bronze Rule in local politics—when voter turnout is above 40,000, when ballot returns are above 40 percent, Whatcom County simply begins to run out of conservatives, and outcomes drift progressive. Conservatives fare best in low-turnout elections.
Conservatives sought to game this rule in 2015 with the introduction of district-only voting.
At their essence, elections are about which representative or representative issues receive more ballots. Countywide elections are onerous: You have to knock on a lot of doors, talk to a lot of people you don’t know, persuade people who do not share your view, and test the merit of your ideas in the landscape of broad opinion. District-only voting effectively cuts this work to a fraction, meaning a candidate or issue doesn’t have to work so hard for support.
As proposed in 2015, district-only voting would have served two purposes: First, reduce the number of votes, the amount of legwork required for conservatives to get elected. Second, scissor apart Bellingham to ensure that the progressive community could never work together to influence county policy. That was Charter Amendment 1 of 2015.
A permutation was introduced in 2015 to redistrict from three to five voting districts, Charter Amendment 9.
Both initiatives passed, with mixed outcomes. Bellingham is now a cohesive political entity in county elections. But even fewer votes are required to control outcomes in county elections.
Over time, district-only voting will not cause county elections to skew more conservative. No, that drift will occur naturally in near-term outcomes with the creation of healthy new districts that do not include Bellingham voters and candidates who do not reside in Bellingham. For the first time, the Lynden farming district will elect its own representative to County Council. No, in actual practice district-only voting will backstop and firewall dramatic seismic shifts in the membership of Council and their ideology. It will actually become more difficult to usher in new faces and new practices.
No, County Council will not grow more conservative as a result of DO; Council is actually more likely to gravitate in out years leftward through DO, with Bellingham in full control of two districts and heavily influencing outcomes in two others. But Council will grow more dysfunctional. Members will become a more quarrelsome, less effective body, less able to reach compromise, with members beholden to smaller subsets of the population, untouchable by majorities of voters, and less tolerant of views from outside their district.
How did we get here? Conservatives, through a mandated process of charter review, placed district-only voting on a ballot for voters. They also sought to nail it in place permanently through other initiatives that would require the unanimous agreement of County Council to change, and with the assurance that with DO firmly in place Council would never again have unanimous agreement. County Council, cognizant of the mischief coming their way, also used their statutory authority under state law to place challenging initiatives on the ballot alongside the others.
All of these conflicting initiatives passed, and some are in obvious collision.
How many Council votes does it take to possibly untangle and unwind the collisions? Unanimous? Super-majority? Those questions, too, are in collision.
In the limited time they have left, Council members this week proposed ordinances that might help resolve some of these questions. They did so with the understanding that they may not have unanimous support to unambiguously resolve the issues when newly elected and appointed members arrive on the Council next year.
The first ordinance seeks to place the issue of district-only voting on a ballot for voters next year. Did voters hate it in application this year? Perhaps we’ll find out.
The more immediately and materially important ordinance seeks to unwind and resolve the conflict in the numbers of Council members required to place matters before the public in the future.
Super-majorities are poor democracy; but one might reasonably argue that if an idea can’t collect the agreement of extraordinary numbers of supporters it probably isn’t a very good idea. Unanimous thresholds are outright tyranny.
Charter Amendment 2 and Charter Amendment 3 in 2015 set a unanimous threshold for County Council to propose changes to the County Charter. Voters passed these amendments—by about 51.5 percent. Charter Amendment 10, introduced by County Council in 2015, set this threshold at two-thirds, or five votes necessary to place a future amendment on the ballot for voters. This also passed—by about 52.5 percent.
Essentially, there is no way to resolve the conflicts in the County Charter outside of the courts, for which there is little case law. Unless, of course, voters are permitted to resolve these conflicts. And the only clear legal path through which that might happen is by unanimous action by County Council to put these matters to a vote. That meets both the super-majority and the unanimous thresholds.
Conservatives sought to nail the mischief of Charter Amendment 1 permanently in place with the mischief of Amendments 2 and 3. Those nails hold some sharp edges for all future initiatives placed on a county ballot by local legislators—the only officials, by the way, that the state recognizes have authority to place matters on a county ballot. Council seeks to blunt those nails before the portcullis comes down.
Let’s call what conservatives sought to dismantle the Bronze Rule, for their scheme to game democracy to suit themselves was assuredly not the golden rule.