by John Colby
As many readers know, Danny Westneat from the Seattle Times wrote a piece highlighting the voting record of current mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver. This was followed by a Facebook post by Ms. Oliver, and a piece for this publication, both of which sought to downplay the point that Mr. Westneat was making. In Ms. Oliver’s case, she has painted this as an attack rooted in race and class. Mr. Taher goes so far as to imply that voting actually doesn’t matter.
However, when we scrutinize the media’s positions on voting records, we actually see a consistency that Ms. Oliver and Mr. Taher neglect to acknowledge. Taking a trip back to 2009, the Stranger and the Seattle Times ripped into Joe Mallahan for his poor voting record. The Seattle Times went further, chastising Mike McGinn and Susan Hutchison for a nearly-as-bad record. The Seattle Times went further, and had two opinion writers do a small written debate on whether voting records matter for people running for Mayor of Seattle.
We have a problem in politics in that people of color must be exceptional to win public office. Mediocre white men, however, will likely still win more often than not. As a matter of principle, there is a question as to whether we should be holding a queer black woman to the same standards as a white man, or is it more accurate to do it the other way around. However, on this issue of voting participation and history, bringing it up is a regular thing that is done in Seattle.
This whole exercise does raise a separate question: is a candidate’s voting record something that actually matters? To some, it does. In Ms. Oliver’s case, she skipped both votes on the Youth Jail she’s been fighting against, and all votes for Mayor of Seattle. As she points out, she is very well educated, and has been involved in the community in her brief history of living in Seattle. For some, there is a red flag that she has not participated in voting on some of the issues she’s most passionate about – just like the red flag people saw with Joe Mallahan’s spotty voting record.
The fact also remains: voting matters. This was made extraordinarily clear in the 2015 City Council elections – when voter turnout was abysmal at just over 40% in the general – a couple hundred votes could have meant Council Member Morales from District 2, instead of Council Member Harrell. Council Member Herbold won by just a few dozen votes. Council Member Johnson by just over 700.
While there is no doubt that systemic barriers exist for voting access – the stamp requirement, that there were no drop boxes in District 2 in 2015 – one would hope that people fighting for social justice would include voting rights as part of that fight. And not just talking about it, but working in communities to organize ballot parties, and organize to get people to get their ballots turned in. That starts by turning in your own ballot.
Stating that you are not voting because “’downtown’ does not now and has not ever effectively reflected us or our interests” is not heroic. We make change in Seattle by showing up and making change. That’s how Mike McGinn became Mayor. How we got districts and democracy vouchers. We are able to push the envelope on policy because people have the threat of showing up and voting. Council Member Sawant is emblematic of what organizing and refusing to have an excuse of why we don’t vote.
The troubling part of the responses to Mr. Westneat’s piece: they focus on excuses for not voting, cite real systemic problems for many folks’ voting access, yet offer no solutions to improve access, and point to no history of organizing in marginalized communities to take the power of the ballot box back. Is voting the most important thing when looking at the record of a candidate for mayor? That’s up to each voter.
A response to having media highlight a “spotty” voting record that is focused on reasons for people to just not participate is not leadership. Leadership is acknowledging the fact, highlighting the systemic problems, and offering meaningful solutions. Voting access is, frankly, one of the most important things in our country, and is how we enforce positive, progressive change.
Ms. Oliver is an impressive candidate, and brings a social equity lens to the mayoral election that is vital. But like all major candidates for public office, she now has a platform, and it will be her choice on how she uses that on voting rights and access – just to highlight what’s wrong, or will she use it to offer up a solution? We have up to six months to find out.