District-Only Voting

Whatcom’s democracy weakens

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

After winning my own reelection to Whatcom County Council by more than 80 percent under the new district-only voting (DOV) rules and looking at the King County results, I felt compelled to propose to voters the opportunity to vote on two critical ballot propositions in 2018. I have been accused of trying to override the voters, of being un-transparent, of doing this for my own political gain, and for partisan political purposes—nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin, it is important to remember that neither I nor the Council has the authority to change the way our elections are conducted. All the Council can do is put something on the ballot to ask the voters to decide.

My first ballot proposal was intended to question why, when citizens voted for two conflicting ballot proposals in 2015, the language of the proposition that receive the greatest support was not adopted. 29,486 (51.58 percent) of voters favored Proposition 3, and 29,584 (52.5 percent) voters favored Proposition 10, yet somehow the provisions of Proposition 3 that contradicted 10 were incorporated into the charter instead of the other way around. This did not reflect the will of the people, and is not considered legal in many states. It’s a serious issue that should be of great concern to anyone who truly cares about democracy; conservatives and progressives alike.

My second ballot proposal was to give the community the opportunity to reconsider returning to countywide voting (CWV), which is used in most Washington counties and has been the norm in Whatcom for almost our entire history. In 2005, the Charter Review Commission (CRC) persuaded voters to approve DOV, but after four years the voters decided to return to CWV. The CRC put it back on the ballot again in 2015, but this time they wanted to make it almost impossible for voters to repeal it in the future so they also included Proposition 3, which was intended to stop the Council from ever putting it back on the ballot for the voters to reconsider. 

The County Charter as amended by Proposition 3 says the Council can only submit CWV to the voters to decide if a ballot proposition receives the unanimous approval of the Council. I knew my CWV proposition was unlikely to receive seven votes, but if it had received five or six votes as I hoped, it would have forced a judge to examine how the county charter came to be amended to favor Proposition 3 instead of the winner; Proposition 10. It will now likely require a citizen to challenge it in court to settle this.

My opposition to district-only voting is nothing new. I was a frequent and public opponent of DOV when it was proposed in 2015. I believe that DOV will weaken the power of the voters to choose their elected servants by making races so uncompetitive that few if any will ever bother to challenge incumbents. I believe that DOV will significantly weaken our historically dynamic and robust local democracy, where most races are won or lost by a few votes.

If you doubt me, just look at the last four years of the King County Council races. District-only voting has been in place in King County for several years and in the last two elections every incumbent has been reelected. In five races the candidates ran unopposed and none of the results in the remaining four could be considered competitive.

Supporters of DOV in Whatcom promised that if adopted it would “open the door for more people to run.” If this is true, why is King County, with 10 times our population, unable to find anyone willing to run in five of nine races?

I believe CWV makes politicians accountable to the people while DOV makes safe seats for career political incumbents. DOV will make Whatcom politically stagnant—this is not how democracy is supposed to work.

Some of the comments I received and my responses are:

• “This process was not transparent, there was no advanced notice, no chance for public comment.” Not true. I specifically asked the County Clerk to publish them to as wide an audience as possible, to provide notice of a public hearing two weeks in advance of our vote as required by law.

• “CWV is unfair to rural voters, DOV is much fairer, particularly to the farm community.” Not true. Prior to the adoption of five districts, a Bellingham resident represented Lynden and vice-versa. That is no longer the case. Now someone has to reside in the Farmlands district in order to be elected to the Farmlands district. But this is thanks to the shift to five districts, not DOV and this would not change if the citizens voted to return to CWV.

• “You don’t like the results of the last election and are trying to manipulate the system to your advantage.” Not true. I ran for District 1 in 2017 and received more than 80 percent of the vote. If the citizens decide to switch back to CWV, then future elections will take more money, more work and will be much harder for me to win than if I kept my mouth shut and accepted DOV.

• “The rural lifestyle and farmers should be represented on the Council.” I completely agree, but the creation of the Farmland district does much more to guarantee this than DOV.
So if everything I am saying is true, then who really wants DOV and why?

District-only voting typically ensures that it’s only possible for one party to win in a given district. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible for a challenger from the same political party to win against the endorsed party candidate. District-only voting shifts political power to incumbents and parties at the expense of the voters.

Winning countywide requires candidates to represent the interests of the majority of citizens. It restores the political power to the voters and makes incumbents more accountable to the citizens they represent. District-only voting allows politicians to entirely ignore the minority party in their district, and requires them to shift from listening to and serving all voters to just serving their party’s loudest voices.

This produces a government dominated by partisan politics and politicians who are unwilling to find solutions in the middle. The result is the party who holds the most seats rides roughshod over the minority and writes laws that appeal to their loudest members. Then, if there are any competitive seats remaining, the pendulum swings back at a future election, putting the other side in power and they retaliate by enacting laws at the opposite extreme. Sound familiar? Some speak in favor of the government gridlock this creates, but this strategy doesn’t work in a business or marriage, so why do we think it’s good for government? The management of a business that spends its time fighting does so at the expense of its stakeholders, the same is true of government.

Some groups believe my objections to DOV are driven by a desire to prevent their opinion being represented in government—absolutely not true. We need government where all viewpoints are represented and legislation is created by people finding common ground. Law made this way survives the inevitable swings of the political pendulum.

I don’t want a government that keeps rewriting the same laws over and over again just because of a shift in political control. I want us to cooperate, collaborate, solve one problem and then another—to improve our quality of life and spend our money wisely. I believe district-only voting will make this much harder.

Rud Browne is a member of the Whatcom County Council.

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