A map of Seattle City Council Districts

Coalition Works to Expand Public Participation in Seattle’s Redistricting Process

by Ben Adlin

As officials begin redrawing the boundaries of Seattle’s seven City Council districts, community groups are working to increase public participation in the process, warning that how the lines are drawn will shape representation in City Hall for years to come.

Overseeing the redistricting process is the Seattle Redistricting Commission, made up of five appointed commissioners. Two were chosen by last year’s City Council and two more were picked by former Mayor Jenny Durkan. Those four then selected a fifth member of the group.

“Districts were created to increase representation for underserved communities,” Nirae Petty, advocacy program manager at the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, told the Emerald, explaining that districts can help unite communities with shared experiences behind candidates or policy goals. “Using the redistricting process to increase the representation and voting power for our communities is really important.”

Petty is part of a coalition of advocates and community-based organizations trying to engage Communities of Color around redistricting, a complicated and sometimes tedious process that can nevertheless have tremendous impact. District boundaries can influence which candidates are elected, what laws are passed, and how public money is spent.

“We need to make sure that districts are made for the community to elect their own representatives and that politicians are not just using the districting process for their own reelection,” Petty said, “because then we end up underserved and underheard.”

Of particular interest to organizers are District 2 (South Seattle and Chinatown-International District) and District 3 (Central Seattle), which are home to many of the city’s Communities of Color, Indigenous groups, immigrants, refugees, and low-income populations. District 2, notably, is the city’s only majority-minority district.

Seattle’s population has grown by more than 21% in the past decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, and some areas have grown faster than others. That means adjusting existing boundaries in order to ensure each new district contains a roughly equal number of people (just over 105,000). The City Council itself is composed of nine members — one from each of the seven districts plus two elected by voters citywide.

A map of Seattle City Council Districts

Rules governing Seattle’s redistricting process say the new districts should be “compact and contiguous” and not gerrymandered. Commissioners are supposed to consider a variety of factors, including existing district boundaries, waterways, and other geographic boundaries, as well as the city’s communities and neighborhoods.

Those factors already put marginalized communities at a disadvantage, organizers say, pointing out that boundaries such as major streets or highways sometimes run right through historical Communities of Color, often because those developments were designed without input from those residents. Using such features to draw district boundaries, they note, can end up dividing cohesive communities and diluting their collective voting power.

Marginalized voices have also had little sway historically over how boundary lines are drawn — or whether to have districts at all. The 2013 ballot question that originally split Seattle into seven separate districts, for example, was backed mainly by conservative white businesswoman Faye Garneau. While some diversity advocates supported the proposal as a possible way to boost representation, many were turned off by Garneau’s assertion at the time that “There’s only one race, and that’s the human race.”

“It was a political decision,” Jude Ahmed, civic engagement organizer for the Urban League, said of the move to make Seattle into districts, adding that People of Color also lacked meaningful input into where initial boundaries were set. “It has made us far more wary about how important it is to really get the voices of Communities of Color into the room this time.”

Both community advocates and the commissioners themselves say the process can only happen with public participation. The Urban League, as part of the coalition Redistricting Justice for Seattle (RJS) — a subgroup of the statewide organization Redistricting Justice for Washington (RJW) — has participated in various outreach events and listening sessions. RJS has also held public mapping meetings to discuss priorities for how the districts are drawn.

Commissioners, meanwhile, recently kicked off a series of public forums to answer questions and gather input before releasing a final proposal, due in November. Accessible online and in-person, the District 1 forum was held May 15 at High Point Branch Public Library in West Seattle, and the District 2 event took place May 19 at El Centro de la Raza’s Centilia Cultural Center on Beacon Hill.

The District 3 public forum is scheduled for the evening of Thursday, June 2, both online and in-person at Garfield Community Center.

Other groups are putting on programs of their own, such as Rainier Avenue Radio (RAR), which hosted a community meeting on the evening of Tuesday, May 24, designed to spread the word about redistricting and encourage wider involvement.

“This is not the sexiest thing to talk about, but it is critically, critically important,” RAR’s Tony B. said at the event, held at the organization’s new home, the Columbia City Theater.

Some at the Columbia City event said they had only just learned about the redistricting process, with one attendee simply walking in after seeing an announcement on the street. Others were upset at the idea that a handful of appointed commissioners would be drawing boundaries capable of potentially dividing communities that share a common cultural bond.

“We’ve got people from outside the district making decisions for people who live in the district,” said one commenter, identified by RAR as Blaine Parrott, who added that he didn’t know about redistricting until getting an email about the event. “We should be making these decisions for ourselves.”

Commissioners, for their part, say they’re eager for public input on how to draw district lines, and many have expressed a commitment to equity and inclusion. 

“We are eager to hear your hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the new council districts that we have been charged to create. We also acknowledge that we are located on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish People, specifically the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes that are still here and continue to honor their heritage,” Commission Chair Eliseo “EJ” Juárez, who is also the director of equity and environmental justice for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said at the beginning of last week’s District 2 public forum.

The commission’s website lists a handful of ways for people to weigh in, such as by filling out a survey, drawing and submitting their own maps via an online tool, or attending one of the public forums that run through July.

To make the process more accessible, the commission has also provided a variety of demographic data as well as translations of some materials and interpretation services.

While all comments are helpful, commissioners said, they’re most interested in specific boundary suggestions. “However you want to draw or communicate your map or boundaries to us, we will gladly accept,” Juárez said, “even if it’s a crayon on paper.”

The goal is for the commission to hear directly from community members on the way to crafting new district boundaries. It’s residents themselves, commissioners said, who have the best sense of what reflects their communities.

Many who spoke during public comment at forums held so far said they supported keeping Communities of Color together in general but felt there had been too little time to review the redistricting process or provide meaningful input. Moreover, because the meetings are organized in order from May through July, starting with District 1 and ending in District 7, districts farther south in Seattle, where more People of Color live, had far less time to prepare.

While there will be one more opportunity for public comment after the commission releases its final proposal map this fall, organizers say the process risks shutting out the very input that commissioners claim to be seeking.

Andrew Hong, statewide coordinator for RJW and a lead organizer of the RJS offshoot, told the Emerald that in addition to scheduling more public meetings with communities this summer, he’d like to see the commission schedule at least three different public forums after the final map comes out in order to accommodate people’s different schedules and the sheer number of potential comments. A single comment session, Hong said, “does not give the public enough time or enough opportunity to voice their concerns to the commission.”

RJS and its members are still doing their own outreach to the community to determine what areas to prioritize, but Hong and others said they have three main geographic areas of focus for this redistricting round.

First, they want to ensure that the Chinatown-International District (CID) remains in a single district, District 2, which also includes most of Beacon Hill. Hong, a lifelong South Seattle resident, noted that many Asian Americans who work or own businesses in the CID either live or have children in schools in South Seattle.

“A lot of small business owners that I know of have children that attend schools on Beacon Hill — Beacon Hill Elementary School, Kimball Elementary School,” he said. “I know several people who live in the south and have businesses in Chinatown and International District.”

To preserve that unity, Hong says, the new maps should ensure that District 1, in West Seattle, doesn’t extend east of I-5 and cut into Beacon Hill. Likewise, if District 1 expands northward, he doesn’t want to see it extend into the CID.

Another area community groups are watching closely is Yesler Terrace, a diverse neighborhood that’s currently split between Districts 2 and 3. It also sits adjacent to District 7, which runs from Pioneer Square north to Magnolia.

Many advocates want to see Yesler Terrace together in a single district, although groups like the Urban League are still trying to feel out whether residents there relate more with District 2, which includes most of South Seattle, or District 3, which encompasses the Central District, Leschi, and much of Capitol Hill.

The commission so far has released four draft maps prepared in February by an outside mapping consultant. While advocates have said each would fail in its own way to keep communities of interest intact, commissioners have emphasized that the drafts were meant only as examples, based on a number of arbitrary factors such as major arterial roads and unofficial neighborhood designations.

Hong, however, thinks it’s important that commissioners hear the community’s negative reaction to the example maps. “Those maps are not good, in my opinion,” he said. “Those maps are official commission maps that are draft maps, at least, that the commission decided to release to kick off their process.”

Hong said that RJS and a number of its constituent organizations are working on draft maps. He acknowledged the commission’s draw-your-own-map process, which involves building a map using online software and balancing population levels precisely, could be daunting to some people.

“If you can’t draw maps yourselves,” he said, “being a voice — and especially a voice among other voices who share your values and interests — will help guide the commissioners to choosing a map proposal that makes sure that the priorities you’re voicing are reflected.”

In an interview with the Emerald on Tuesday, Commissioner Rory O’Sullivan, a lawyer who helped author the initiative behind Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program, said the commission is already working to incorporate community feedback around how Districts 1, 2, and 3 might be drawn, pointing to discussions during a committee meeting earlier in the day.

“Some of the example maps have District 1 obtaining the population numbers that it needs to obtain either by lopping off North Beacon Hill or lopping off South Beacon Hill, or in some other way carving up Beacon Hill,” O’Sullivan said, “and there seems to be consensus among the coalition members that we don’t want to do that.”

Similarly, there seems to be a consensus that Downtown Seattle, which some advocates have asked be included all within a single district, will need to be split among at least two districts, O’Sullivan said. 

“But even if we make all those assumptions,” the commissioner continued, “how far north District 2 should go and what that means about the east and northeast side of District 2 are, I think, open questions. Those are going to be some of the more difficult questions.”

Asked how much he felt the commission should work to increase effective representation for Communities of Color, O’Sullivan replied that the body’s job is “definitely not to be colorblind, but the law provides sort of mixed guidance.”

“One the one hand, the law prohibits us from drawing lines exclusively based on the race of the population,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re also prohibited from attempting to dilute representation for Communities of Color.”

O’Sullivan added: “I think there’s agreement among the commissioners that we’re, you know — I think in the context of the City of Seattle, it absolutely makes sense to ensure that historically aligned communities, communities that have been impacted by redlining and gentrification and other structural racism, that those factors are taken into account when we ensure appropriate representation.”

He asked that when making suggestions, members of the public consider that due to the law’s requirement that districts have nearly identical population sizes, any movement of a boundary to include more people needs to be offset by changes somewhere else.

“The reason why I’m encouraging people as much as possible to submit maps is because if you don’t want the line to be near you, where do you think is an appropriate place for the line to be?” O’Sullivan said. “If you want X community and Y community to be together, that’s certainly useful information. But then what other problems does that create for Z community?”

One possible reform down the road, said Hong at RJS, could be to simply establish more districts overall. That could help prevent Communities of Color from being lumped into districts that dilute their voices. Hong, who also works at the Washington Community Alliance, said that’s a plan the group is “actively looking at pushing for.”

“Expanding the membership of City Council,” he explained, “allows for Communities of Color who are in the minority in Seattle to have more opportunities to elect a candidate of their choice. Whereas right now there’s only one majority-minority council district, under a system where there are 11 or 15 council seats, there could be multiple councilmembers from majority-minority districts.”

Barring such a sweeping change, the boundaries put in place through Seattle’s current redistricting process will be in place for the next 10 years, until after the next Census count. And while organizers are working hard to make sure that lines are drawn in ways that maximize representation of Communities of Color, some at the public forums acknowledged that redistricting can only begin to address broader issues of displacement that have eroded Seattle’s historical communities.

“If race and racial equity is not included in this decision-making, then we are in trouble,” one commenter, who did not give his name, said at the meeting hosted by RAR on Tuesday. But, he continued, “our problem is much bigger than that.”

“The price of houses is skyrocketing, and people who have been here for 40 or 50 years, they cannot even afford to live in their own houses,” the person said. “I don’t know what is to be done in light of those difficulties.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured image from King County.gov.

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!