by Andrew Engelson
The effort to recall District 3 Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant — the unapologetic socialist, advocate for workers’ rights, and supporter of higher taxes on Seattle’s wealthy — took an unusual turn earlier this month. In a bold tactical move, the campaign that opposes Sawant’s recall is now asking her supporters to sign the recall petitions in order to ensure the recall vote takes place on the November general election ballot.
At a press conference on July 9, Sawant signed a recall petition herself and urged her supporters to do the same.
“The Recall Campaign pretends they’re not attempting to carry out voter suppression in District 3. They don’t pretend very hard though,” Sawant said in a press release. “They want a winter special election because they don’t want ordinary working people to vote. They know Black people, working class people, young people, typically vote in dramatically lower numbers in special elections.”
The Kshama Solidarity Campaign, created to oppose the recall vote, is now actively gathering signatures for the recall effort. It’s a calculated gambit to pressure the Recall Sawant Campaign to submit signatures in time for a November vote rather than a winter election, when turnout is generally lower. The Recall Sawant Campaign says it currently has more than 9,000 of the nearly 11,000 signatures from District 3 residents that must be turned in by Aug. 3 to put the recall vote on the Nov. 2 ballot.
“We want to avoid any attempt at voter suppression,” said Bryan Koulouris, a spokesperson for the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, “which is happening all throughout the country, particularly toward People of Color and young people. We think the recall avoiding a November vote would be a form of that voter suppression.”
Whether or not the recall gets on the November ballot will ultimately be up to the Recall Sawant Campaign. Recall Sawant Campaign manager Henry Bridger says the group is committed to putting the recall vote on the ballot as soon as possible.
“Our goal has always been to be on the earliest election possible, and [we] will have a better idea after verification,” Bridger said in an email to the Emerald.
“Recalls are their own sort of creature,” said Kendall Hodson, chief of staff at King County Elections. “They actually have their own timeline. … Once we receive them, we’re going to validate those signatures. As soon as we’re done and it’s certified as sufficient, then we’d be required to hold an election between 45 and 90 days after we verify those signatures. So if it’s within the timeline we gave of Aug. 3 — which is the deadline for ballot measures for the November election — we think we can get it in the November election. But if it comes in significantly later than that, we’re looking at a December or even January stand-alone election.”
The one complication for Sawant supporters gathering recall signatures is that the original petitioner (i.e., the Recall Sawant Campaign) is required to turn in the signatures together, and this group gets to decide when and if to submit the batch of signatures.
“For a recall specifically,” Hodson said, “the law is that [signatures] all have to be turned in together. And then our rule is that they can either be turned in by the petitioner or their designee.” Signature sheets sent to King County Elections from anyone other than the Recall Sawant Campaign will not be valid, Hodson said.
If the Recall campaign decides to wait until the last possible moment (it has 180 days from the original April 2020 petition, so around mid-October) the vote would have to take place on a stand-alone ballot, said Hodson. She noted it’s possible that the recall might be included on the February 2022 special election ballot, which is normally reserved for school levies and other ballot measures.
The reasoning behind Sawant’s signature gathering tactic and pressure on the recall campaign is twofold. First, turnout in winter off-season elections tends to be much lower for demographic groups that make up Sawant’s key supporters: young people and People of Color. Those elections often have lower voter participation — for instance, the February 2020 special election in King County saw just 33% of ballots returned. Those who don’t vote in off-year or special elections tend to be younger, racially diverse, and lower income while older, retired, and wealthier people tend to vote in more elections.
The second reason the Kshama Solidarity campaign wants the recall on the November ballot is to increase turnout of voters more likely to support left-leaning candidates and causes.
“We’d certainly like people to be able to vote to keep Kshama’s seat, and to vote for [City Council candidate] Nikkita Oliver at the same time,” Koulouris said. “We think this can drive turnout, for example, against the anti-homeless Compassion Seattle [charter amendment].”
The recall effort got underway last April, spurred by District 3 residents who disagree with Sawant’s combative tactics.They also take issue with incidents such as the moment Sawant let Black Lives Matter protesters into City Hall and Sawant’s use of city funds to promote her Tax Amazon initiative — a violation of the City’s Ethics and Elections code that Sawant has admitted to and was ordered to paid a fine and reimbursement for.
The recall campaign has drawn national media attention, and each side has raised substantial funds from donors. According to the Seattle Elections & Ethics Commission’s (SEEC) financial disclosure website, both the Recall Sawant and the Kshama Solidarity Campaign have each raised more than $500,000. According to SEEC filings, 59% of Kshama Solidarity Campaign’s donations are from outside the City of Seattle. The largest chunk of the Recall Sawant Campaign’s $551,000 donations come from people who are listed as “Not Employed” ($163,000), and 41% of Recall Sawant’s donations are from residents of District 3. Despite a reputation as a movement of retired and wealthy residents, “[t]his recall is supported by voters who represent all age groups, employment status, and all income levels,” Bridger said.
Both sides have been fighting the information battle hard, blitzing District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Leschi, and Madison Park) with signs, mailers, and billboards. Over the past weekend, the Recall Sawant Campaign stirred up a frenzy on Twitter after it hired a plane to fly a Recall Sawant banner over Capitol Hill during a labor rally at Cal Anderson Park in support of Councilmember Sawant.
The Recall Sawant Campaign is leery of their opponent’s signature gathering effort and has taken issue with the validity of the tactic. “It’s dubious,” Bridger said. “The Solidarity Campaign has thus far refused to return any of the petitions they’ve collected, raising serious legal concerns about election fraud and voter suppression. Frankly, it’s hard for voters to trust her stunts like this — particularly with Sawant’s track record of breaking the law, which contributed to the recall effort in the first place.”
But Hodson, with King County Elections, said Sawan’t strategy is perfectly legitimate, as long as the signatures are gathered legally and recorded on valid signature sheets. Bridger said the Recall Sawant Campaign will accept signatures from Sawant’s supporters: “We will accept signatures from the Solidarity Campaign as long as they are legally submitted well in advance of our deadline.”
In order to pressure a November vote, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign has challenged Recall Sawant to meet their supporters on Aug. 2 to accept the signatures Sawant’s supporters have gathered and submit them prior to the Aug. 3 deadline. “We’ve already collected 1,100 signatures, and we’re going to collect 3,000 signatures,” said Koulouris. “We can make up the gap for the recall campaign. All they have to do is turn in what we collect.”
Bridger says his group is eager to field the recall vote, whenever that may be. “Sawant has proven to be unfit to serve in office,” he said in an email, “she knowingly breaks and lives above the law, she’s put public employees in harm’s way on numerous occasions, and she caters more to a national special interest group than she does District 3 residents.”
Sawant was combative as usual in her challenge to the recall effort: “Our message today, from our movement to the Recall is: Put up or shut up,” she said in a press release. “You say you want to turn in your signatures and get on the ballot in November? Then do it. The Solidarity Campaign will collect the rest. Let’s have a vote.”
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.
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