King County Elections is almost done counting the votes for this year’s Seattle City Council races, and as the final ballots are tallied it’s becoming increasingly clear just how unprecedented this year’s election spending was. A per-vote analysis shows that even without every last ballot having been counted yet, it's clear more money has been spent per vote this year than during any election in recent years, with five campaigns breaking this decade's previous record for per-vote election spending.
The per-vote spending was especially stunning for Egan Orion and Heidi Wills, two losing candidates who were backed heavily by big businesses like Amazon. When all spending on their behalf is taken into account (and that means independent political action committee spending plus each candidate's own campaign spending) nearly $59 was spent for every vote that Wills received and more than $50 was spent for every vote Orion received.
On average, the 14 Seattle City Council campaigns in this year’s election spent $28.93 per vote they received.
A Record Set in 2015 Falls
The campaign to elect Wills and Orion was far more expensive than this decade’s previous record for per-vote election spending. The earlier record for Seattle elections was held by the business-backed candidate Shannon Braddock, who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2015 and saw just over $30 spent for every vote that went her way.
Wills and Orion’s per-vote election spending is also far larger than the per-vote spending in what is still this decade's most expensive local campaign: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2017 mayoral campaign. That race saw more than $1.892 million spent to elect the mayor, but since she was running citywide that worked out to only $15.45 spent for every Durkan vote.
Why was this year’s per-vote election spending so incredibly high?
Two reasons: Big Businesses spent an unprecedented amount of money (thanks in part to $1.5 million from Amazon) and this year’s elections were for district seats rather than citywide seats. That means the millions of dollars spent by business was used to leverage relatively small amounts of voters in individual districts.
The Current Per-Vote Numbers
These per-vote figures are likely to change slightly in the days ahead, as King County Elections counts the remaining votes and the last campaign finance disclosures are filed. Even so, the following number should remain broadly stable.
Based on current vote counts and disclosures, here’s what was spent, per vote*, by the PACs and campaigns backing all 14 city council candidates:
Heidi Wills (District 6): $58.95
Egan Orion(District3): $50.11
Jim Pugel (District 7): $49.80
Andrew Lewis (District 7): $40.72
Mark Solomon (District 2): $40.51
Phillip Tavel (District 1): $36.27
Alex Pedersen (District 4): $28.98
Kshama Sawant (District 3): $25.04
Lisa Herbold (District 1): $17.02
Dan Strauss (District 6): $15.23
Tammy Morales (District 2): $15.09
Shaun Scott (District 4): $14.56
Debora Juarez (District 5): $10.97
Ann Sattler (District 5): $4.93
PACs are Largely Responsible for the Big Numbers
This year’s election saw a massive amount of spending by local Super PACs, which are political committees that face no donation or spending limits, but are not able to coordinate directly with the candidates they are supporting.
More money was spent by independent Super PACs in this election ($3.8 million) than by all of the candidate’s campaigns combined ($3.2 million).
Council Member Lorena González has cited this unprecedented wave of Super PAC spending—as well as the outsized per-vote spending totals it created—as one of the reasons the city needs to pass her legislation to limit Super PAC donations. During a call with reporters before the election, González pointed out how this Super PAC money was being spent to sway narrow swaths of voters in different districts across the city.
“All they have to do is reach a very small percentage of the 150,000 people who live in each of these seven districts,” González said. “That is a tremendous amount of influence on public opinion that we should all be concerned about.”
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal called Amazon’s $1.5 million donation to Civic Alliance for A Sound Economy (CASE), the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Super PAC, “callously disrespectful” to Seattle's voters during the same call.
CASE’s spending is responsible for most of the top per-vote spending in this year’s election. Of the five candidates who beat Braddock’s 2013 record for per-vote spending, four were supported by CASE.
The only other candidate to exceed Braddock’s $30-per-vote record is Andrew Lewis, who had the help of more than $540,000 in Super PAC spending largely from one out-of-state hotel workers PAC. Lewis had promised to support union-friendly legislation if elected, whereas Lewis’s opponent, Jim Pugel, was more critical of union protections.
González's proposed Super PAC legislation had originally placed donation limits on Super PACs of all types, but she later amended the legislation give union-backed Super PACs a pass on donation limits. Her union carve out also seems easily exploited by business groups. González has said she is open to further changes to her legislation as it makes its way through the council.
The Super PAC spending for Wills and Orion is particularly staggering because the city usually only sees that much money spent on mayoral candidates. Wills and Orion’s total election spending—$1.08 million and $1 million, respectively—is nearly equal to the amount of money spent to elect former Mayor Ed Murray. Murray saw more than $1.09 million spent to elect him in 2013.
Another Previous Record Holder: Tim Burgess
This decade’s previous record for most spent on a city council campaign was Council Member Timothy Burgess’s 2015 campaign, where more than $646,000 was spent to elect him to a citywide seat, including more than $213,000 in Super PAC spending, largely from the Chamber of Commerce. Burgess is one of the city’s most active proponents of no-limits Super PACs; he organized this year’s People for Seattle Super PAC, which raised more than $666,000 to support the pro-Big-Business candidates.
Burgess’s per-vote spending in 2015 pales in comparison to this year’s per-vote totals, however. In 2015 he was running for a citywide seat, so only about $7 was spent per vote for him, far less than the $58 and $50 per-vote spending for Wills and Orion.
What Else Could This Money Have Bought?
Considering neither candidate won, it's time to play the annual game of: What could the people who voted for Orion and Wills have done in an alternate universe in which they'd just been given $58.95 or $50.11 in cash?
A lot, obviously. But here's one I came up with: every single Orion or Wills voter could have gone to the top of the Space Needle and still had enough money left over to get a drink and enjoy the view while up there.
*This analysis calculates per-vote spending by dividing total election spending (during the primary and general elections) by the number of votes cast for each candidate in the general election. We used total election spending because winning a council seat is a cumulative process across both the primary and general election campaigns. We do not count both primary and general election votes because it would be impossible to avoid double-counting individual voters who cast ballots in both the primary and the general elections.
Correction: Due to a calculation error, an earlier version of this story overstated Herbold's per-vote costs and understated Tavel's per-vote costs. This story has since been updated to show that the per-vote costs to elect Herbold were less than the per-vote costs of the failed attempt to elect Tavel.