Whatcom County Hands Coal a Sack of No

Big Coal’s Gerrymandering Scheme Mostly Thwarted

by Kristin Eberhard

Election results are in for Whatcom County, Washington, where a proposal for a giant coal export terminal puts communities on the front lines of the fight against dirty energy. Thanks to a flood of money from coal interests, voters approved a coal-backed proposition to change the county voting system to district-only voting. This plan likely would have locked in a pro-coal majority on the council if voters had not also approved a competing measure. The competing measure instructs the county redistricting commission to redraw district boundaries (see map here: www.sightline.org/2015/11/09/whatcom-county-wa-hands-coal-a-sack-of-no/). Under the coal-backed plan, voters would have ended up voting in three districts with boundaries gerrymandered to dilute the urban vote and give pro-coal conservatives a majority on the council.

Coal won district-only voting, but it lost gerrymandered districts.

Under the new five-district plan, voters in urban Districts 1 and 2 will probably elect progressive councilors; voters in rural Districts 3 and 4 will likely elect conservative councilors; and coastal District 5 will be a toss-up. Because the county as a whole leans left, the two at-large councilors are likely to be more progressive. In the end, the anti-coal representatives will likely end up with four or five of seven seats.

In sum: despite another round of big spending by fossil-fuel interests, Whatcom voters managed to prevent them from locking in pro-coal gerrymandering.

In the same election, the competing redistricting proposals were joined by a raft of measures that changed the rules of the game for revising districts: a contest over the rules for changing the rules. The outcomes of these votes have reset the odds for achieving proportional representation voting in Whatcom in the future. Voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to make it easier to amend the County Charter via citizens’ initiative. They more narrowly approved three proposals making it harder for the Charter Review Commission and the County Council to propose Charter amendments and nearly impossible (requiring a unanimous vote) for the County Council to propose changes to county voting systems. The upshot of these changes will be to put citizens themselves in the driver’s seat for any future changes in Whatcom County voting methods.

In the nearer term, Democratic-leaning officials have taken almost complete control of the Whatcom County Council. Western Washington University professor (and progressive) Todd Donovan comfortably won the District 1 seat and, even in the low-turnout election, progressive Satpal Sidhu edged out Republican-endorsed Kathy Kershner for the District 2 seat. The County Council will consist of six Democratic-leaning councilors plus Barbara Brenner, who is politically independent.

Tuesday’s outcome is good for anti-coal advocates, but it’s not good for democracy. A county with 40-45 percent Republican-leaning voters has zero Republican-aligned councilors?! Too bad Republican leaders in Whatcom tried to grab disproportionate representation on the council. If they had supported, rather than buried, proportional representation, conservatives would likely win three seats instead of zero.


This article was originally published Nov. 9 on Sightline.org: www.sightline.org/2015/11/09/whatcom-county-wa-hands-coal-a-sack-of-no/.