by Andrew Hong
We just had a historic election last month, and we all learned a lot about what it means for the composition of our federal and state governments. However, deep in the election data files is information that allows us to learn a lot about our communities, neighbors, race, class, and geography, and how people vote. After publishing a preview article for these midterms (that you should read), I parsed through this midterm election’s data to help answer remaining questions about how South Seattle and our greater community votes. Spoiler: It’s constantly changing.
First off, who voted? This year, voter turnout was lower than 2020, 2018, and 2016 by substantial margins across the state, including the South End (37th Legislative District). And just like in previous years, turnout is much lower in more diverse South End neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods. This explains why the 37th District has consistently lower turnout than the rest of the city: the 37th District is the only majority-BIPOC district in Seattle.
Another thing to note is that turnout in odd years is always lower than in even years. This was a motivating reason behind King County Charter Amendment 1 this year, which moves County election offices to even-year elections (and it passed!). Interestingly, while turnout in the 37th Legislative District (LD) is lower than the countywide turnout during even years, it’s higher than the countywide turnout in odd years. This is most likely because Seattle has high-stakes municipal elections in odd years that garner a lot of attention, money, and therefore votes, whereas smaller cities in King County don’t have high-attention municipal elections to drive up turnout.
Lower voter turnout and the midterm following a Democratic presidential victory historically spells bad news for Democrats. However, across the state, Democrats actually had their best election in over a decade. They flipped a State House and State Senate district to expand their large majorities in the state legislature, they flipped Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in southwestern Washington (a district Trump won twice), and they won the Secretary of State office for the first time since 1960.
In South Seattle, voters from all neighborhoods and demographics continued to heavily support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot: There was overwhelming support for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Democratic Secretary of State candidate Steve Hobbs, Congressman Adam Smith, Democratic State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, and Democratic State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Rep.-elect Chipalo Street. This support was shared among majority-white and majority-BIPOC neighborhoods. However, as I also found in my last article, voters of color in the South End are continuing to trickle away from the Democratic Party. Those trends are seen across the entire country, but are not uniform by ethnicity nor socioeconomic class.
Voter Shift Trends
Just 10 years ago, the 37th District was the bluest district of Washington’s 49 Legislative Districts. This is no longer the case; majority-white districts in North Seattle are now more Democratic than the South End. This is the result of a small but steady realignment of partisanship in Washington where working-class voters — previously just white working-class voters, but now increasingly working-class People of Color — are shifting to the Republican Party, while wealthier, white suburbs are shifting to the Democratic Party. This realignment helped Democrats flip districts in the techie Eastside Seattle suburbs, like the 8th Congressional District and the 5th Legislative District. But it’s causing Democrats to lose ground in Communities of Color, like Yakima and South King County (SKC).
To further analyze this shift, I dove into Sen. Patty Murray’s last two elections this year and in 2016. Since the start of the “Trump Era” of American politics, wealthier North Seattle and Eastside suburbs have increased their support for Patty Murray, while diverse South Seattle and SKC shifted away from Murray. Particularly, it’s been People of Color that have shifted to the right, with high correlations between precincts with BIPOC majorities and shifts toward the GOP.
However, those rightward shifts among BIPOC are not uniform. Asian-Americans in South Seattle are shifting harder to the right than Black people are, which follows national trends. Additionally, People of Color in South Seattle and SKC are disproportionately getting redder whereas People of Color in the Eastside suburbs are actually shifting blue. This means class is a catalyst for Republican gains among People of Color: working class voters of color are shifting red while wealthier voters of color are not, but even getting bluer.
This is especially noticeable in the Chinatown-International District, where GOP fear tactics have helped shift this neighborhood dramatically to the right (although, noticeably, the Little Saigon part of the CID got bluer while the Chinese parts west of I-5 got much redder).
For those who wonder if a part of this shift is due to the difference between presidential years and midterm years, the answer is kind of. Since Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell’s 2018 Senate race, voters of color in South Seattle did not make a disproportionate shift away from Democrats. However, voters of color in SKC and the Chinatown-International District did make a substantive shift away from Democrats.
Most of the national attention on voting pattern shifts have focused on Latinos shifting right. Because there are few dense geographic concentrations of Latinos in Western Washington, it’s difficult to measure the Latino vote without region-specific polling. But what we can glean from the most Latino districts in SKC (the 30th and 33rd Districts, each about 20% Latino), there is no conclusive evidence for a substantive rightward shift among Latinos in King County. This is not the case, however, among Latinos in rural, lower-income Central Washington, where Latinos shifted massively to the right this year.
Many have speculated about why Asian and Latino voters are voting Republican all of a sudden. Some point to rising anti-Asian hate crimes fueling pro-police sentiments among Asians, or successful rhetoric campaigns painting Democrats as a socialist party, but the data shows a more nuanced story: We see People of Color shifting to the Republican Party because People of Color, comparatively, are working-class people, and working-class Americans are, as a whole, shifting to the Republican Party (see Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, etc.). Voters of color in South Seattle have become more Republican, whereas voters of color (and white voters) in wealthy Eastside suburbs have become more Democratic since 2016; further, voters of color in the poorest areas in SKC have had the largest shifts to Republican, more so than voters of color in the South End. The shifting racial dynamics, at least in the Seattle area, are actually best explained by class. The Democratic Party is increasingly becoming the party of the wealthy, while the Republican Party is increasingly making up ground with working-class voters of all races. Overall, voters of color still overwhelmingly support Democrats, but are slowly but surely trickling away from the Democratic Party in Washington and nationwide.
37th District Race
While People of Color and white people in South Seattle still overwhelmingly vote (Democratic) together, that voter cohesion did not carry over to the race to fill Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley’s open State House seat. Much like what we saw in the primary election, there was a noticeable geographic and racial divide in the South End, with BIPOC — especially Black — voters in the southern part of the district supporting longtime community leader Emijah Smith and white voters in the northern part of the district supporting Microsoft manager and Rep.-elect Chipalo Street. Street beat Smith 55% to 45% in the closest election the 37th District has had in recent memory.
While Street performed best in whiter northern neighborhoods, his biggest improvement from the primary results were in the BIPOC-heavy southern parts of the district, especially in Beacon Hill and Skyway; conversely, Smith actually made gains in whiter areas of the district, like Columbia City and the Central District, since the primary, suggesting that there was a little less racial polarization in November than in the August primary. Nevertheless, this marks the first time in years the preferred candidate of People of Color did not win a race in the 37th LD — an undeniable political mark of the gentrification of the South End and Central District and a testament to The Stranger’s (who endorsed Street) influence over white voters in the 37th LD.
King County Prosecutor
In the King County Prosecutor race, South Seattle voted with the majority of the county for progressive reformist Leesa Manion. There was a stark geographic divide in this race between SKC and Seattle. Seattle — especially the South End — voted overwhelmingly for reformist Manion, while SKC voters — including BIPOC voters — voted for conservative Democratic Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell. Eastside suburbs also voted for Manion at a more modest rate to push Manion over the edge. The near-unanimous Seattle support for the progressive in this prosecutor race marks a stark shift from last year’s Seattle City Attorney race, where conservative Ann Davison narrowly beat progressive Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. These results suggest that while Seattleites are certainly supportive of criminal justice and policing reform, Manion’s more reformist rhetoric and messaging resonates with Seattleites more than Thomas-Kennedy’s abolitionist rhetoric. Others have noted that the turnout difference between even and odd year elections may have made the difference in last year’s 52%–48% City Attorney race, too.
King County Ballot Measures
The other things on South Seattlites’ ballots were two county ballot measures on even-year elections and a tax levy for green space conservation. King County voters approved both of these measures by wide margins, with South Seattle voters approving both by even wider margins. As a result, green spaces will continue to be protected, and all King County elected offices (County Council, Executive, etc.) will move their election years from odd to even years, effectively increasing the number of voters who will decide those seats, as even-year elections routinely have higher turnout than odd-year elections.
Seattle Proposition 1
One of the biggest immediate impacts of November’s elections on Seattleites is the passage of ranked-choice voting in municipal elections starting (at latest) in 2027. Voters voted on Seattle Proposition 1, on whether to change the city’s election systems, in two parts: first, whether to keep the current system of single-choice voting or to change it; second, if the city were to change its system, should it adopt approval voting (1A) or ranked-choice voting (1B). Despite major Seattle news outlets The Seattle Times and The Stranger urging voters to keep the current system, voters narrowly voted in favor of changing the electoral system from the status quo by 51% to 49%. Voters then overwhelmingly preferred changing to a ranked-choice system over an approval voting system by 76% to 24%.
In diving into the data, the first question (to change or keep the current voting system) was divided along traditional Seattle ideological lines, with younger, renter-heavy, lower-income neighborhoods voting to change the system and wealthier, older, homeowning neighborhoods voting to keep the current system. On the second question, 1,023 of 1,027 voting precincts preferred ranked-choice voting — the four precincts that preferred approval voting were in South Lake Union, the downtown business district, and New Holly. When looking at the margins in support, approval voting interestingly had disproportionately more support in the most heavily BIPOC neighborhoods in South Seattle, such as Rainier Beach, New Holly, and South Beacon Hill.
One wrinkle in these results is that despite ranked-choice voting winning the election outcome, it’s very likely less than 50% of voters actually wanted this to happen. This is because a whopping 49% of voters did not want to change the voting system; and of the 51% of voters who did want to change the voting system, it’s likely that a mix of those voters wanted to change the system to ranked choice (about 76%) and others to approval voting (about 24%).
If you take those numbers, only about 39% of all Seattleites voted to change to ranked-choice voting and 12% to change to approval voting. That means that despite only about 39% of voters wanting to change to ranked-choice voting compared with 49% of voters who didn’t want any change, we will have ranked-choice voting elections come 2027. Now, this is naively assuming the rate of voters who preferred ranked-choice voting over approval voting is the same between people who voted “Yes” (change the system) and those who voted “No” (keep the current system) on the first question, which is likely wrong. However, in order for the number of people who voted both “Yes” on the first question and “1B” (ranked-choice voting) on the second question to outnumber the number of people who voted “No” on the first question, 98% of “Yes” voters needed to have preferred ranked-choice voting over approval voting — and that is extremely improbable. So, most likely, Seattle just moved to ranked-choice voting despite the fact more Seattleites probably didn’t want ranked-choice voting.
Funnily enough, this problem could’ve been best avoided by using ranked-choice voting to decide this ballot measure where voters could have ranked 1 through 3 whether to keep single-choice voting, change to ranked choice, or change to approval voting — and have votes reallocated from whichever of the three (likely approval voting) was the least popular to determine the majority choice.
My biggest takeaways from this election was that People of Color in the South End and SKC shifting red was not just a little phase, but is now an ongoing trend. This may not hurt Democrats electorally right now, but if this trickle of loss support snowballs over time as the country gets more and more diverse, Democrats could run into an electoral problem if they don’t substantively buck this new trend of BIPOC leaving the party.
Secondly, Seattle politics is becoming increasingly ideological and polarized. Seattle elections are ideologically divided on not just who we’re voting for, but now also on how we vote. The choice to adopt a new voting system — something not seemingly ideological — was deeply divided by typical moderate versus progressive political lines in City politics, which is something I would not expect to have occurred 10 years ago. The 2023 Seattle City Council elections will likely showcase our increasingly polarized City politics again, and we shall see if the Democratic Party makes any moves to counter the shift of voters of color away from the party before the 2024 elections.
Andrew Hong is a data science student at Stanford University and lifelong South End resident. He has worked as a campaign consultant, community organizer, and currently serves as statewide coordinator of Redistricting Justice for Washington, a coalition from the Washington Community Alliance advocating fair redistricting for Communities of Color across Washington State. For inquiries, email AndMHong@gmail.com.
📸 Featured image courtesy of King County Elections. Graphs created by Andrew Hong with data from King County Elections and the U.S. Census Bureau.
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