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Sunday, June 26, 2022

For Your Approval: Does Seattle Need a New Way of Electing Its Leaders?

Image by pencil parker from Pixabay

The systems we use to elect leaders vary from state to state and sometimes from one city to another. Now, a couple of alternative voting systems are being advanced and one of them is coming to a ballot near you.

First a little history: Since 2008, Washington elections have operated under the top-two system. The two candidates with the most votes in a primary face one another in the general election, even if both are from the same party.

Cities and counties presently cannot deviate from Washington’s top-two system – not unless they have a home-rule charter, freeing them to innovate.  Then — and only then — charter cities or counties can opt for another system after voters approve a charter amendment. There are several charter cities (Seattle is one) but only four charter counties: Clark, Whatcom, San Juan, and King.

This fall, San Juan and Clark counties are voting on Ranked Choice Voting, the system now used in New York City, Minneapolis, and San Francisco as well as in Maine and Alaska. That method allows voters to choose up to five candidates and rank them according to their preference. 

However, Ranked-Choice Voting (often abbreviated as RCV) won’t appear on Seattle ballots this year. The one that’s coming is Approval Voting, a system pushed by the California-based Center for Election Science. That outfit contributed close to half a million dollars to Seattle Approves, an effort to get Initiative 134 on the ballot. Paid signature gatherers amassed 43,215 signatures, far more than the 26,520 needed. Seattle City Councilmembers now have to enact Approval Voting outright or place the issue on the ballot with or without an alternative measure.

Approval Voting allows primary voters to say “yes” to one or more candidates —  as many as they want. Then the two candidates with the most votes go to the general election. Approval Voting is the brainchild of the afore-mentioned Center, a 501-c-3 nonprofit supported by engineers, techies, and individuals like cryptocurrency billionaire Samuel Backman-Fried. SBF (he sometimes goes by initials) has also been a major donor to moderate politicos like President Biden and Sens. Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, and Mitt Romney. Locally the Seattle Approves committee is headed by Logan Bowers and Troy Davis. Bowers ran unsuccessfully in the council race against Kshama Sawant.

Approval Voting tends to elect consensus candidates, those with box-office appeal but not necessarily substantive ability. (Think of clueless golden boys like Robert Redford from “The Candidate.”) So far the system is used in just two U.S. cities: Fargo, N.D., and St. Louis, Missouri. Critics say one of the flaws of Approval Voting is that it tends toward “bullet voting.” That’s what happens when a voter, although able to approve all acceptable candidates, games the system by casting a vote for a single candidate who may lack universal appeal.

Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, the local organization pushing for Ranked Choice Voting, faults the Approval Voting system. In an interview, the former middle school math teacher told me that, while Approval Voting works in small groups (like a school or alumni group), it isn’t as successful with a diverse electorate. She said, “Approval Voting would be unfortunate for a diverse city like Seattle.” She contrasts it with RCV’s proven record of success improving representation for women and people of color. 

Locally RCV has been championed by King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay who a year ago introduced legislation for its approval, but had to postpone the effort for a year. Zahilay wants the state Legislature to pass legislation to enable governments more easily to adopt ranked-choice voting. That effort is now delayed until the Legislature’s next session.

For Seattle voters, much now depends on what the City Council does with Approval Voting. Will councilmembers enact it outright? Or will they send the issue to the ballot for voters to have a say-so?  And, if goes to the ballot, will the council send it alone or include an alternative? For the peoples’ ability to choose good leaders, this could be a cliffhanger.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I have yet to have anyone explain to me in a convincing way what’s actually wrong with our current system of voting in Seattle. We don’t seem to have any difficulties electing, say, women or minorities to office here.

    All of these proposals – approval voting, ranked choice – strike me as solutions in search of a problem, and they all add needless layers of complexity and political gamesmanship to a system that is working fun as is. But, now that approval voting has made the ballot, I expect it will pass.

    • I’d put ranked choice and approval voting right up there with gerrymandering. Ranked choice is dream baby of the Left and approval voting seems to be a way for the Old Guard to hold on to power.

      Seattle is a complicated place… I mean there’s like 85 separate non-profits helping the homeless (and wanting money and housing vouchers from the City) and according to Ryan DiRaimo over at The Urbanist, the building codes for Seattle are now longer than the Holy Bible. I think a these “complications” are the reason the City doesn’t function very well. Making things simpler would help out a great deal.

      Approval voting doesn’t make things simpler. Like many ideas in Seattle, there’s a vocal minority who love the idea and plan to push it though. The majority is too busy living life day to day to worry about crap like this.

    • Hey, this is Logan from the Seattle Approves campaign. To answer the question of “why do we need voting reform,” I think of it like this:

      Our primaries are really crowded which means the vote is split pretty thin. We regularly see candidates “win” a primary with between 20% and 30% of the vote. So we end up with a general election where 7 out of 10 people didn’t want one candidate, and 8 out of 10 didn’t want the other. Is it surprising that with those choices voters don’t really like the results and tell pollsters the city is on the wrong track?

      We need candidates to win that have broad support, a mandate to govern, and importantly, accountability to a broad swath of voters. By allowing voters to express their true support (or lack thereof) for every candidate, we’ll see the bar raise higher.

      With Approval Voting, candidates will need a majority or near-majority to win the primary (in the STL mayoral, it took 41% of the vote to get into the 2nd slot), which means voters are much more likely to be voting for a candidate they like, not the one they dislike the least. That’s what democracy should be.

  2. Ah, no. Democracy in America has a long history of “one person, one vote”. Why on earth would we change that? Want even less voters voting in elections? Make the system even more complicated.

    Politics is a hobby of mine… I spend a lot of time on it, I have a fair understanding of it. Other people are not so in to politics and I get that. People raising kids and working on careers do not want to spend the time understanding some wacked out multiple choice voting system. It’s unfair to citizens who don’t want to be political wonks.

  3. I like Ranked Choice, but right off hand I’m at a loss to account for why it would be “more successful with a diverse electorate”, or why Approval would be particularly prone to electing candidates without “substantive ability.” Maybe someone who actually understands these issues could comment?

    My guess is that Approval is easier to get backing for, because there’s still a general election where the special interests can focus their money and efforts. Ranked Choice is one and done, and you could so easily end up buying a loser.

  4. What’s wrong with primary + general? It favors the “front runner” candidate who “has a chance”. In a field of a more than three or four candidates, you know who has the union backing etc., and if you vote for anyone outside of those top three or four, your vote is WASTED. With Ranked Choice, you can vote for the candidate you want, and still have a say in who gets elected.

    So there is less advantage in getting that early “momentum” out of special interest money and campaign help, that makes someone a contender who can actually get votes. It’s particularly interesting in partisan elections where we’ve been talking about how toxic the two parties have been getting. A third party candidate is nothing but a spoiler – in our primary+general system. With Ranked Choice, a third party candidacy makes perfect sense.

    Anyone can understand the system, you don’t have to be a “political wonk.” Tell us who your first, second, and third favorite candidates are. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, probably couldn’t get the envelope open in the first place.

    • We have a tough time getting voters to mail in their ballots as it is. Asking them to rank voters in order of preference adds needless complexity to the process, and, I suspect, would be a disincentive to voting, despite what its cult of true believers profess. When voters can’t even be bothered to participate at all, it is totally counterintuitive to expect that ranking candidates would make them more willing. Yet this is what the cult continues to argue. I’m not buying it for a second.

      I haven’t missed voting in an election, not even a special levy, for 57 years. I do my best to familiarize myself with as many candidates, in as many races, as I can. I read voters pamphlet statements, I look on PDC and FEC to see who is funding them, I participate in endorsement interviews. Even so, I’ll be damned most of the time if I can decide who to rank second instead of third, third instead of fourth, etc., etc. It’s all a a crapshoot anyway, whether we rank candidates at all, or don’t.

      If there is more than one candidate I would like to vote for in any race, I would much prefer Approval Voting, which is on the ballot for adoption in Seattle this November. That way voters can select who they approve of, as many as they like, without having to go down the tedious rabbit hole of ranking. Candidates will still have to go before the voters, and will still have to get out their voters, and much of the needless gamesmanship will be eliminated.

      I agree with Sandeep on this one. The simplest, most straightforward system is the one we have now. It doesn’t have any intrinsic flaws that can’t be fixed by rolling up our sleeves and committing ourselves to the hard, but necessar,y work of recruiting and supporting better candidates.

  5. One still has to ask: If the current system is so great, why did the California-based Center for Election Science expend some half million on the effort to get Seattle voters to change to Approval Voting, something not in use except in two remote venues? Love to know what prompted the backers to zero in on Seattle,

    • Hi Jean,

      Logan here from Seattle Approves. I’m glad you asked!

      CES is a non-profit that is dedicated to strengthening elections in the US. The “First Past the Post” system widely used today tends to produce the least representative outcomes of any known voting system, which leads to failures of governance. As part of their mission, CES issues grants to groups attempting to improve elections in their local jurisdictions.

      Seattle Approves one of multiple groups from multiple cities that applied for grants, and we were fortunate enough to win! The big reason was that we twice conducted polling that showed over 70% of Seattle voters would support an Approval Voting initiative. In short, the voters said they wanted it, and we at Seattle Approves stepped up to volunteer our time.

      I’m always around to answer questions, for you and your readers, please do reach out any time. info-at-seattleapproves-dot-org

      Cheers!

  6. I have never really understood the strident objections to Approval Voting. In this case, Seattle has the opportunity to engage in an experiment. At the very least, it wouldn’t be worse than what we have now, and if it’s an improvement, Approval should have as much of a chance to be examined in the public arena as RCV/STV, which has had 150 years to make its case to the American public, and is also promoted by an out-of-state organization with an agenda.

    At one time, secret ballot, STV, IRV, etc. were all theoretical new and unproved methods also. We now have much more sophisticated statistical and computational tools at our disposal to analyze different methods than we did in the nineteenth century.

    I say let a thousand flowers bloom and see which prosper.

  7. https://web6.seattle.gov/ethics/elections/poplist_v2.aspx?cid=827&listtype=contributors

    Looks like a bit over $200k to me, so $500k is a bit of an exaggeration. I also know of other donors nationwide who used to live in Seattle and want to support our local efforts.

    I think your “zero-in” reaction is a little paranoid. There are lots of Approval advocates in Seattle. The local initiative sponsors were looking for alternative methods for Seattle, and discovered references to Approval and the local advocate community. After educating themselves on various methods, they contacted CES.

    The same kind of thing has happened with RCV in Seattle and other areas.

    The difference in their success has to do with amount of change required for each method. Because Approval top two primary is actually a minor modification to the existing primary, it is able to be passed as an initiative, while RCV would be a systemic change conflicting with current state law.

    So CES didn’t focus on Seattle as a target. Instead, its attention was drawn to Seattle by local support and a favorable path to legislation. Seattle is also a logical progression in the path toward larger and larger regions of local adoption.

  8. If approval voting is approved I intend to vote for every candidate in every race, and to encourage others to do the same. Anyone brave enough to run for public office deserves approval and encouragement

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