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What Election 2011 Tells Us

Voters have reelected all five Council incumbents, three of four School Board members, and approved the Families and Education Levy.  That’s a pretty incredible vote of confidence in Seattle’s political leadership – especially in the midst of deep voter discontent and anxiety about the direction our country is headed.

This Council has worked hard to achieve this.  We have tried to be professional, thoughtful, and careful in our work.  And we have reached out to engage Seattle residents in helping us to make decisions, while providing clear leadership when we needed to step up to the plate.

Voters have noticed this.  The strength of this Council discouraged challengers, and Councilmembers defeated their opponents fairly easily.  Before someone raises the mantra of how tough it is to defeat a sitting Seattle Councilmember, let me remind you that this is the first off-year election (no Mayor on the ballot to draw fire) since 1987 in which the voters returned all Council incumbents.  And, historically, the City Council experiences larger turnover than almost any other legislative body (try and find another city, county, or state government where one third of the members took office by defeating incumbents!).

Perhaps even more astonishingly, the voters took a deep breath, and in the midst of deeply troubled economic times, approved a near doubling of the Families and Education Levy.  While the Families and Education Levy has always been a popular cause and there was no organized opposition, to achieve almost 60% of the vote under these circumstances is extraordinary.

These successes were foreshadowed by the victory on the tunnel referendum in the August primary, another issue with significant controversy where voters reaffirmed their confidence in the Council’s political leadership by a massive margin.

Voters did turn down the Vehicle License Fee for transportation improvements, and there are some important lessons to be learned from that.  The VLF was put together too quickly.  Voters being presented with a fee that they have never seen before need to be completely convinced that this is a good investment – it is very reasonable to vote no if you have doubts.  There was not enough information presented to persuade voters that this made sense, and the campaign started too late to work with opinion leaders and the community to design a measure that would make a good case.

These election results also remind us that voters in Seattle tend to be issue-oriented, rational, and turned off by negative campaigns.  They make up their minds based on facts, and interest groups and editorials have a limited ability to sway them.  Many years ago, the political scientist VO Key wrote a book called “The Responsible Electorate”, in which he argued that, despite what appears to be much evidence to the contrary, American voters generally make rational choices based on the 2 or 3 most salient issues in a campaign and the information that they have.  In Seattle, thanks to the Voters Guide and a lot of good journalism, voters have access to a range of information, and I would argue that they use it pretty effectively.

The closer elections for School Board suggest that voters remain uneasy about the issues at Seattle Schools.  However, by reelecting most incumbents and providing the additional resources through the Families and Education Levy, voters appear to be saying that they are seeing the progress and the rays of hope, as the School District continues to recover from its challenges and gain ground in carrying out its core educational mission.

So, how should the City Council respond to this vote of confidence?  The core lesson is that we need to stay focused, keep being rational and thoughtful, keep faith with the public and continue to emphasize public involvement and transparency.  Above all, this is no time to get overconfident: keep listening and keep doing the hard work voters are looking for.  Seattle can continue to be an even better place to live and work – if the Council continues to be diligent and progressive, and match our leadership with staying in close touch with our voters.

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