Editor’s Note: The authors are organizers of the I-134 initiative effort to enact Approval Voting in Seattle.
Bowers ran unsuccessfully in 2019 for a District 3 City Council seat. This op-ed responds to a story on approval voting by Jean Godden.
Voters in Seattle will have the opportunity in November to adopt a new way of voting. But what happens when the City Council politicizes the absolute last thing that should be politicized? Seattle City Council members are being pressured to “put their thumb on the scale” by manipulating the election method that is used to elect themselves.
In June, Initiative 134 for “Approval Voting” was certified by King County Elections and referred to the Seattle City Council, which typically would adopt the initiative or place it on the November ballot for voter approval or rejection. The City Council postponed its decision on June 28 and again on July 5. Now, the Council is considering also sending to the voters their preferred “alternative” option for City Council elections, tagging along on the hard work initiative sponsors have done.
Initiative 134 is a voting-reform initiative supported by over 40,000 signatories. It is designed to give voters more say in who represents them using the Approval Voting method. The Council’s “alternative” of “Instant Runoff Voting with a Top-two Runoff”— a variant of ranked choice voting — is a surprise, as it’s never been proposed or considered before anywhere in the United States.
Seattle has countless groups with strong opinions about what kinds of candidates we should elect and what kinds of systems should elect them. Each group has an opportunity to go out in the community, get signatures to support their proposal, and get it on the ballot — exactly what I-134’s group of volunteers did over the last two years.
The Council is now considering an end-run of that process by putting their version before the voters, alongside the I-134 version, without researching or understanding the consequences of their untested proposal or involving the public in its creation. As advocates for the Approval Voting measure in I-134, we’ve talked with policy experts and councilmembers in other jurisdictions. They’re stunned that Seattle’s council would consider doing this.
Ethics rules prohibit councilmembers from using their offices to support or oppose an initiative. The Council also is required to discuss and vote on an initiative in a public meeting. Councils rarely offer an “alternative,” and election methods haven’t been on a Seattle City Council agenda in many years. We think this proposal came from private meetings and emails with special-interest lobbying groups. The council can neither deliberate nor develop this proposal in public due to the ethics rules for the initiative process. This gambit is not the transparent, deliberate, thoughtful, neutral process that voters should expect.
If the council does put its thumb on the scale for its own elections, that will become the lens through which the public and the media sees future election results. This isn’t about the merits of different election methods. It’s about the subversion of the proper initiative process. Making an election change of this magnitude isn’t a two-week summer project.
I-134 asked the question, “How can Seattle’s election methods most accurately reflect the electorate?” Approval Voting is that. It results in non-partisan, representative democracy (“Who does the electorate prefer?”). It is not easy to design a reform that is non-partisan and true to the will of the voters. Indeed, we’ve seen across the country that when elected officials meddle with their own elections, they more often help themselves rather than the voters.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting proposals say their system is tested and used in other cities. This is untrue. Seattle’s open-primary, non-partisan, top-two runoff system is very rare in the U.S. Only one alternative voting system has been used in that context, and that’s Approval Voting in St. Louis. The Seattle City Council will instead be debating “Instant Runoff Voting with a Top-Two Runoff.” No one has ever proposed or used such a system because it makes no sense to have another runoff after an instant runoff.
If councilmembers want to reform elections, then they should do it in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. It takes time to learn about factors like vote-splitting and measuring electoral support, and to hear out voters, neutral experts, and leaders in other cities. With that trusted process, advocates should write a thorough proposal for the public to consider and give this issue the respect and thoughtful public process it deserves.