Per-Vote Municipal Election Spending and Climate Change: Seattle Questions

Crises, divisions, and battle stakes are all accelerating. That’s why it’s increasingly important for political candidates to have good information on voters, using vendors like our client Accurate Append, an email, and phone contact data quality vendor to have accurate data for outreach. Despite the undeniable fact that you have to spend money to win elections, the dynamics and optics of that spending are also important. 

You’ll find a shorter post I wrote here from a couple of weeks ago, written while results were still being tabbed for the King County (Seattle) elections. There, I pontificated on the folly of Amazon and other corporations spending so much money on these local races—and losing most of them. But now that the King County results are finally tabulated, we can also springboard into a deeper and weirder discussion: what are these corporate stakeholders, and other donors, spending their money on? 

2019 was unprecedented: votes for “Egan Orion and Heidi Wills, two losing candidates who were backed heavily by big businesses like Amazon,” cost nearly $59 and more than $50 respectively. That’s much higher than the average for the 14 city council campaigns overall, at nearly $29 per vote, but that is still a lot of money. We usually associate big election spending with national races, particularly presidential elections. But in so many ways, the local is more politically real than the national anyway. And as we’ll see a bit later, municipal policies are going to make or break communities as the effects of climate change begin taking their toll, particularly in coastal states like Washington. 

Not only do we associate spending with federal elections; we also tend to think more, talk more, and participate more in those national races, and such priorities don’t actually serve us. Last year, Lee Drutman wrote an article for Vox lamenting that “America has local political institutions, but nationalized politics. This is a problem.” It’s a problem, Drutman says, because data indicates people consume far more national than local news, and behave accordingly, despite the fact that only 537 federal elected offices exist, compared to around half a million state and local electeds. That huge abstraction of political energy into a realm where individual votes matter far less than they do in mayoral or county commissioner races means that highly ideological and spectacle-oriented national political parties control public discourse—making it more about drama than actual policy. 

Drutman discusses Daniel Hopkins’ recent book on the nationalization of political behavior. Hopkins’ argument that the United States prioritizes “place-based voting” is even more provocative now that much of the world is shifting towards a more migratory existence. 

Climate migrants” (who are not legally considered refugees, although this could change in the future of international legal activity) are those of us who have moved, are moving, or will move in response to weather events, food availability, resource conflicts, and other crises, and the numbers of them are going to grow exponentially in the coming decades. We have no idea how many people will be moving around the world, but we have good reasons to think it will be more than we end up estimating. The movement will take place both from country to country (or, alarmingly, from country to permanent nomadism), and within countries. The number of people completely abandoning their part of the world is likely to be in the hundreds of millions over the next century at the very least. 

In June of this year, the Center for Climate Integrity released a report showing that Washington would bear the highest cost of all West Coast states in protecting and rendering sustainable those communities most likely to suffer from the climate crisis. “Beyond laying out broad cost estimates, the report also questions who will foot the bill for climate adaptation.” This debate generally consists of folks on the left saying that fossil fuel companies ought to bear those financial costs, and those on the right continuing to argue against redistributive regulation. 

Seattle’s city council recently passed a resolution committing the city to one of the strongest localized Green New Deals in the country, requiring drastic emissions reductions “while increasing affordability for low-income families.” Under this vision, the city will be carbon emissions-free by 2030, will invest in neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized and unfairly hit with the worst environmental harms in the past, and will confer with indigenous people and tribal nations on climate policy. We can expect future city council decisions, at least for the foreseeable future, to do more of this boundary-pushing.  

But a curious part of this, one which I don’t think has been examined politically or philosophically, is the tension between the U.S. being home to a “politics of place,” to paraphrase Hopkins, and the likelihood that people may not be staying long, or much longer at least, in those municipalities and surrounding greater city areas if staying there is financially or physically hazardous because of climate change. Here is where we approach a very weird convergence of local politics, a national anti-corporate zeitgeist, and deeper philosophical questions of the cost and long-term consequences of digging our heels in for or against public spending. Consider just the Seattle race. 

First, consider that it was won by the left in a come-from-behind victory, at least perceptually. A few days before the elections began, and even in analysis of the initial (and ultimately misleading) results, critics of Seattle’s “progressive-socialist” coalition government were predicting that the scare tactics and promises of “responsibility” by the “moderate Democrats, neighborhood groups, and public-safety unions”—along with Amazon & Co.’s big bags of money would pay off. But just before the election began, Amazon threw another $1 million to the Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee. Then, the race turned into a referendum on corporations buying elections, and that, combined with a base much more loyal than the skeptics had supposed, resulted in the progressives and socialists pretty much running the table.

Second, imagine if Amazon’s candidates of choice had won in November 2019. Those candidates generally had more negative views of taxes, and more neoliberal views on which entities (if any) ought to be providing services to the public. A slate of candidates backed by a big business might disfavor the tax aspirations of the current Seattle city government. Consider that this outcome might shift the course of Seattle’s long-term population trends. What if Amazon hadn’t made that strategic error and had instead genuinely changed the composition of the city government? It’s possible a more “business-friendly” municipal government would reverse course on some of the public-oriented climate response policies. And, over the next 50-ish years, that relative diminishing of public climate mitigation actions, now replaced by either wishy-washy private initiatives or nothing at all, might further drive emigration from King County. Then the per-vote-spending becomes even more surreal. Or, those in favor of strong corporate influence might have been proven right, the private sector offering better climate adaptation solutions to the city. 

Third, consider what would happen if voter turnout in local races were to increase. Right now about 1 in 5 people vote in exclusively local elections—a figure much lower than voter turnout in national elections. The collection of voter data, a project taken on by institutes such as Pew Research, can actually increase voter turnout if the research, and contact with research subjects, begin before election day. And there’s also some misreporting by respondents who want to appear more engaged than they actually are, and who will report they’d voted when they hadn’t.

So we dip into a double irony when we think about how absurd it is for municipal candidates to rely on spending that hits $50 or more per vote gained, but also how such an investment is truly an investment in votes rather than in the residents themselves, who, depending on the policy orientation of local leaders, may end up being literal climate refugees or another category of municipal expat.