by Marcus Harrison Green
True believers in the principle of the actual public controlling the “public purse” can delight. Last Saturday began online voting for Your Voice, Your Choice, the city of Seattle’s participatory budgeting initiative.
Now in its second year, the initiative – originally conceived under the banner of Youth Voice, Youth Choice with a focus on engaging youth around civic participation – lets Seattleites as young as 11 democratically allot a portion of the City’s budget for neighborhood beautification and street improvement projects.
“Your Voice, Your Choice is democracy at work. This is about what the community wants and having the community decide. Everyone has the opportunity to be a part of this – to participate in how the City spends its funds that directly affects them,” said Kathy Nyland, director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON).
Nyland’s department is tasked with managing the project, which sets aside $285,000 for each of Seattle’s seven geographic city council districts. Each designated area has its own ballot listing 8 to 10 community specific projects, whittled down from more than 900 ideas sourced from town halls, school forums, and online surveys. An individual voter will be able to select three projects on the ballot they wish to have funded. The number of projects funded in each district will vary depending on where each project places in the voting tally, with funding determinate on how fast the $285,000 is exhausted.
With the initiative receiving four times as many ideas as last year, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has strongly championed the initiative since its conception, says she’s encouraged the effort appears to be igniting the politically disengaged.
“This is evidence of Seattle residents’ appetite to use methods of engagement for people who have not historically been involved, in order to directly decide how to spend part of a public budget,” she told the Emerald in an email.
Since Seattle moved to geographic representation City Council in 2013, District 2 (South District) has consistently been near the bottom in voter turnout for elections.
A fact Jenny Frankl, a Rainier Beach resident and Your Voice, Your Choice program lead, is hoping the initiative helps change.
“The great thing about this is that people are voting on projects right in their neighborhood. If they want a sidewalk repaired, or parklet put up, or a light pole replaced, they have a direct say in funding it. Your vote actually leads to a visible result,” she says.
This is the second consecutive year Frankl ‘s helped spearhead the initiative’s outreach, and says she believes the 9 projects South Seattleites can cast a vote on- including crossing improvements, curb installations, and landscaping projects – will lead to high voter participation.
“People really want their opinion to be heard. As the last election saw, people feeling ignored usually leads to apathy, and that’s never a good thing for democracy,” she adds.
At least one young community member appreciates the city soliciting input on its spending of taxpayer cash. Under normal circumstances, Gracie Bucklew would be prohibited from voting, as she’s just shy of 18.
“Participatory budgeting is extremely important for young people and people who can’t vote! Since we can’t vote, adults don’t usually listen to us and our needs, so this is great,” says Bucklew, who splits her time between Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill.
“Someone from the city actually recently came into my class and we brainstormed ideas about how to make walking around the city easier and safer, since us high-schoolers do it all the time. Everyone had a lot to say and suggest.”
Though Your Voice, Your Choice voting is open to adults this year, it’s initial intention before the name change, was to ignite the civic spirit of the city’s youth. Even with an expanded voter pool, that youth focus hasn’t been lost according to Nyland.
“Last year we launched this program focusing on youth ages 11-25. It was wildly successful with thousands getting civically involved, many for the first time. When we received feedback that said ‘I like feeling that my voice counts,’ it’s an indication that our youth truly embraced this opportunity. Your voice does count. We are listening, and we hear you because of programs like this.”
Your Voice, Your Choice voting continues until June 30, with winning projects being announced July 18. Community members must be at least 13 years old to vote online, however paper ballots are available at local libraries and community centers for those 11 to 12, and anyone preferring one. Online ballots can be viewed at www.seattle.gov/yvyc.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image is courtesy of the Seattle City Council