by Robert Herold
Imagine, if you will, that your neighborhood is entitled to one representative on the city council, as is the neighborhood just a couple of blocks over. Let's presume that both neighborhoods are populated by, say, 100 people. Now, suppose that the people in your neighborhood are good citizens and vote -- but the so-called folks around the corner? They don't vote much at all. Let's suppose further that in a typical election, all 100 voters in your neighborhood turn out and elect one member of the council; meanwhile, around the corner, only 50 voters choose a winner. Well, you say, OK, that happens. Voting participation fluctuates.
But suppose you discover that the district lines were intentionally drawn to achieve just this result, that the lines could just as easily have been drawn to equalize not only population but turnout. Suppose you discover that the lines were drawn to "empower class," with the goal of making certain that the neighborhood around the corner would have a resident representative, whether or not people there took the time to vote.
In case you haven't noticed yet, that's exactly what the City Council majority was up to four years ago when it adopted districting Plan No. 28. To see how well their districting map has worked out, let's check the votes from the recent election. If you don't live in District One (that's the northeast district), you are dramatically under-represented. And they knew this would happen. If you live anywhere in the city but District One, your vote is worth only about 60 percent of the vote cast by the voter in District One.
In the recent election, the total number of votes case in District One for both Bob Apple and Terry Beaudreau totaled (as of the Monday count) 10,698. The total votes cast in the council race in District Two (that's the South Hill district) totaled 18,586. The total votes cast in council race in District Three (the northwest district) totaled 17,982. Run the percentages. Whereas it takes approximately 18,000 votes in districts two and three to elect one representative, citizens in District One can get the same level of representation for just over half that number of votes. I might add that these numbers and resulting percentages didn't change much at all from the 2001 election. In other words, what we have here is a districting plan calculated to ensure overrepresentation. You might view it as a civic affirmative action program. It could also be seen as a form of gerrymandering. The more uncharitable could argue they are being denied equal protection of the laws, guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.
While the state districting guidelines do not mandate that districts be designed to ensure equality of turnout, the truth is, in our case, this option was available: Two north-south districts running from the south side of the city through the downtown, and one east-west district running north of Wellesley would have done the trick. I know, because I helped research and present such a plan myself. But the council majority, with a 4-3 vote, made the conscious decision to create a pattern of overrepresentation.
City Council members, like members of Congress, represent districts that have to be roughly equal in population. That doesn't mean every district has an equal rate of voter turnout. Still, in Spokane, it's not hard to find ways to ensure that not only are districts roughly equal in size but also in turnout. It's clear that the map is all wrong, and the next city council should study whether changes should be made.
The problems with one district lagging so far behind are profound, and will impact how some of the city's toughest problems get addressed. For example, the current map effectively ghettoized poverty. Only five of the 23 elementary schools then reporting more than 40 percent of students qualifying for school lunch assistance fell within districts two and three. The alternative design would have seen that number rise to 14 for the areas in question. This would have proved significant. Let's assume that school lunch qualification is a good indicator of poverty. If you want to help out the poor, wouldn't you seek to assure that the problem would be shared by at least four and likely all six members of the council, rather than, at most, just two of them?
It doesn't follow that a district characterized by poverty will automatically produce a representative who is poor. Research shows that when cities turn to district elections, business leaders are typically replaced, not by representatives who mirror a specific demographic, but by professionals. With an exception here and there (such as Bob Apple), we can expect to see the pattern repeat itself here. Two examples: Al French is an architect, and Rob Higgins holds an MPA.
And speaking of French, I dare say that the present districting plan could not have benefited him in his run for a citywide position. Had he represented a North Side district that ran east to west into the more affluent Indian Trail area, I bet that he would have won last week's election. He only lost by 3,500 votes, coming from the least voting district. Had he represented a more diverse group, he would have been far more appealing to them in a citywide election, and if more appealing to them, likely more appealing to those most likely to vote throughout the city.
In the end, the insurgent council majority, four years ago, while waving the banner of class politics, managed to shortchange two-thirds of the city. As a result, their legacy is a narrowed concern for problems of poverty, and they managed to make it all but certain that strong candidates from the less affluent areas of the city will face unfair odds in citywide races.
This is what knee-jerk populism gets you.
Publication date: 11/13/03