Washington conducts its elections using all the devices political reformers are trying to get other states to adopt—automatic voter registration, open-to-all non-partisan primaries; early voting, convenient and secure mail-in ballots. As a result, Washington has among the highest rates of voter turnout in the nation—in the 2020 presidential primary, it was the highest so far.
But there’s one reform the state is way behind on: ranked choice voting (RCV). A simple bill to allow local jurisdictions to try it out has failed in both the state House and Senate in 2019 and 2020.
FairVoteWA, the citizens group urging adoption of the system, urged the state Democratic Party to use it in its multi-candidate March 9 primary, but for unexplained reasons it declined, even though its 2018 platform calls for its adoption, presumably statewide. (The state party’s spokesperson did not respond to an emailed request for explanation of the decision.)
As a result of that decision, 369,503 voters who cast early votes for presidential candidates who dropped out of the race before election day “wasted” their votes—more than 20 percent of those who cast ballots. That includes 142,652 for Elizabeth Warren, 122,536 for Michael Bloomberg, 63,344 for Pete Buttigieg, 33,383 for Amy Klobuchar and 7,894 for other dropouts.
Had the party used RCV, the second choices of the dropouts would have been assigned their votes, and if those second choices also were dropouts, the third choice would get the votes. Everyone’s vote would have counted. If one assumes that the Warren votes would all have gone to Bernie Sanders and the three moderates’ votes to Joe Biden, Biden would have won with 52 percent to Sanders’s 45 instead of 37.9 to 36.6. One of the benefits of RCV is that it produces a majority winner.
On the Republican side, it’s interesting to speculate who would have won the 2016 presidential nomination if it had been carried out with RCV. Lisa Ayrault, chair of FairVoteWA, thinks it would not have been Donald Trump. Trump did not win a majority in any of the first 27 GOP state primaries and began doing so only when his plurality victories (39 percent in Georgia, to take one example; 43 percent in Alabama for another) cleared the field of all but two rivals in the late primaries. “He was no one’s second choice,” she says.
Washington politicians clearly have a problem with ranked choice voting despite its longstanding use in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland and its more recent adoption in 20 jurisdictions in the United States, including Minneapolis (2009), San Francisco (2004), Oakland (2010), Santa Fe (2018), and Portland, Maine (2011). It was adopted in a New York City referendum last year with 73 percent of the vote.
Maine is the only state that’s adopted it for all its elections, but Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming use it for Democratic primaries and Utah for all primaries. Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina use it for overseas and military ballots and some runoff elections; and 50 colleges and universities do so for campus elections.
So what is the Washington problem? Ayrault speculates that politicians like the system that got them elected and fear it might threaten their hold on office. Indeed, RCV does open the way for Independent candidates to run without being labeled “spoilers.”
Installing it statewide would require a citizen initiative, which FairVote does see in the cards perhaps in 2022, but for now it wants to pass the local options bill. In 2019, HB 1722 passed the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. (Mia Gregerson from Kent, chair of that committee, was chief sponsor with 27 co-sponsors, all Democrats). The bill then went to the Appropriations committee, where it got a hearing, but died without a vote. It was brought up again there in 2020, gaining a bit of Republican support, but never got a hearing and never came to a vote.
In the Senate State Government Committee, SB 5708 never even had a formal hearing. Its chair, the amiable veteran Sen. Sam Hunt of Olympia, did conduct an informal session attended by FairVote representatives and others advocating cumulative voting (an alternative to RCV mainly used by corporations). Also present was a witness from the Washington Assn. of County Auditors who took no position but said shifting to a new way of counting might be difficult in some jurisdictions and not others.
At the close, Sen. Hunt said of RCV, “someday, someone might convince me it’s a good idea.” But clearly that was not yet this year. (Hunt did not respond to a request for comment.)
Conceivably entrenched politicians fear that if RCV is seen to work at the local level—as it clearly does all over the country and parts of the world—it would add to pressure on them to have Washington follow Maine.
National reformers had plans to advance RCV in 13 states, especially by referenda in Massachusetts, Alaska and North Dakota, but dropped the idea because COVID made petition-gathering impossible.
FairVoteWA and its allies plan to begin shortly seeking one-on-one meetings with legislators to assess prospects for passing a local option bill in 2021.
Rep. Sharon Shewmake of Bellingham, likely to be one of next year’s lead sponsors, told me the objection she’s heard most often from colleagues in the past is that the system would be difficult to understand, and might add to spoiled ballots, especially among underserved constituencies and in counties that don’t provide detailed voter guides.
A Western Washington University economics professor, Shewmake and a colleague are conducting an online research project testing the ease or difficulty of mastering the process of ranking their candidate choices. She presumably will find—and be able to argue–it’s pretty simple. The candidates are all listed on the ballot, with boxes next to their names where voters enter 1, 2, 3 and so on. The bill, if it passed, presumably would be taken up in jurisdictions believing themselves capable of managing it.
RCV is seen as an especially optimal solution to Yakima County’s ongoing voting rights dispute that’s led to costly court fights over the fact that few Latinos ever get elected to county offices—especially the county council—though they comprise 45 percent of the county’s population. Currently, county council members are elected at-large and whites (47.7 percent of the population) consistently win. RCV would likely correct the imbalance, especially if the county moved from at-large to a single-member or multi-member districts.
The Yakima situation is reminiscent of purposeful voting discrimination in the deep South—and also recalls vote-packing elsewhere in the country where legislative districts are gerrymandered and minorities are packed together to limit their influence in the legislature and Congress.
Washington is ahead of much of the country on redistricting, which is handled by a bipartisan commission of two Republicans, two Democrats and a non-voting chairman, who must reach a majority decision on maps. It’s not the most advanced system, though, because lines are still drawn on by representatives of the two dominant parties, with no interest in Independent competition. States like Iowa and Arizona assign redistricting to an independent commission.
Still, voting in Washington is ahead of other states in most respects—except on ranked choice voting. At a minimum, local jurisdictions ought to be allowed to try it out. Experience elsewhere indicates they’d like it.