Op-Ed: Consideration of Approval Voting Initiative Deserves a Fair Shot with City Voters

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Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay

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. 

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The authors are organizers of the I-134 initiative effort to enact Approval Voting in Seattle, and Bowers ran unsuccessfully in 2019 for a District 3 City Council seat.

20 COMMENTS

  1. “This isn’t about the merits of different election methods.” Or rather, you wish it weren’t. Pardon me, for getting into just what election method we’re talking about here, and how it compares to I-134’s approval voting.

    I rummaged around on the web for any clue, and the only thing I could find is a publicola article that says Lewis might introduce something to add Ranked-Choice Voting to the menu. I don’t think you made that “Instant Runoff Voting with a Top-Two Runoff” story up, but I believe you’re seriously misinterpreting it.

    I’m no expert on Ranked-Choice systems myself, but apparently there are a variety of procedural variations – the algorithm, if you like – and “instant runoff” is the term for one widely used system. You can read a lengthy treatment of this system on wikipedia, where you will find `When the field is reduced to two, it has become an “instant runoff” that allows a comparison of the top two candidates head-to-head.’ I can’t comment on why they found that final step important enough to mention, because the internal mechanism of the vote calculation is of no more interest to me than to the average voter, but I’m sure that’s what the “top-two runoff” in that title refers to. There isn’t a separate election – which as you say, makes no sense – and in fact, that’s a virtue of this system. There’s only one election – one and done.

    Instant runoff voting has in fact been widely used. The context of an “open primary, non-partisan, top-two runoff” system is immaterial, because this Ranked-Choice system will do away with primaries. It’s just less radical here, than it would be in partisan state office elections, where it would have a huge potential to make third party candidates viable.

    • Donn,

      Yes, in a normal world, an RCV proposal would eliminate the primary. In this case, they cannot do that because State Law requires that the city have a top-two general election. So instead of changing State Law, Council Member Lewis is proposing they stack IRV on top of the existing primary system in a never-seen-before, never-used-before, double runoff system.

      The support for this hacked up version of IRV has purely partisan support and is being used to stave off the non-partisan, non-ideological proposal to use Approval Voting, which is going to ballot this November.

      Regardless, if the Council really believes that their hybrid double runoff system is the right thing to do, they can always deliberate in public using proper process, and place it on the ballot later.

  2. There’s a growing hunger to change the way we elect the city council, but I’m not sure the public will trust and vote for proposals that come from activist groups (or politicians). Better if it comes from a neutral commission of citizens and experts, which a group of people could study and adopt, including labor, the Chamber, and green groups, chaired by an eminent political figure such as Gary Locke. I would include the by-district election system, as well as the way we elect the school board. In past days, the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League would take the lead on such a task force.

    • I agree with David’s comment. I voted for the last City Council improvement plan: district elections. And I also supported the city’s voucher system. I believe both reforms have led to a deterioration in the quality of elected officials in Seattle. We have too many council members elected by district. The districts are therefore smaller than they should be, allowing members who are not representative of the interests of the city as a whole to get elected. Additionally, the availability of vouchers has resulted in more opportunity for campaign advisors rather than a more representative council. We have candidates who know how to harvest vouchers, resulting in at least one campaign where a candidate received many voucher dollars, but almost no votes. I think David’s idea of having a neutral commission broadly study the need for electoral process changes and make some proposals is advisable, so that the pitfalls of any proposal can be fully explored before the public has to vote on any major electoral changes.

  3. Thanks Troy and Logan, for a strong argument for the Council not to add another option to the current Initiative 134!

  4. Either IRV or AV would be an improvement over the status quo. Giving more options to voters is a good thing. The insinuations about the other side’s supposed sinister motives are distracting and unconstructive. In November, voters will need to make a choice between different election methods, so, yes, it is about the merits of each of those options.

    • Kevin,

      If they were proposing a true RCV option, I’d agree with you. But because they’re shoehorning it into the existing top-two system, it’s at best neutral, but likely slightly worse than the status quo on account of being significantly more complex to get the same outcome as today.

      Additionally, the rules about how alternatives go to ballot are confusing and likely cause voters to vote “No” just because of ballot construction, so the Council is effectively spiking any reform at all. The reason for this is State Law requires that the issue go before voters as a two-part question: “1) Do you want Voting Reform? Yes/No” followed by “2) Regardless of how you voted on (1), what should be adopted? Approval/RCV”

      People who have a preference for one over the other can only choose to vote “No.” This significantly lowers the probability of any measure passing. The Council gets to quietly spike any reform by meddling.

      The reason RCV inside the top-two doesn’t change anything is because it likely still becomes a purely factional election, as it is today, and the bar under RCV to be unbeatable in a split election like this is about 26% of the vote (50%+1 of your faction). That’s a really low bar, much lower than under Approval Voting, for a candidate to clear and about what the existing candidates clear by pandering purely to their base.

      • Could you explain that 26%?

        Say it’s the mayoral, and we have an RCV “primary” winner – after counting enough 2nd, 3rd, whatever it takes votes, one of them has a majority. It isn’t super obvious to me how they get a 2nd winner for the “general”, if that’s really what they’re going to do, but … I guess they could run the numbers again, but this time just discarding votes for the 1st choice winner. So both candidates for the general would get there with majorities, albeit with some 2nd/3rd/etc. choices. Am I getting something wrong here?

        I assume the primary results would be published, so everyone would know who was the 2nd winner. In 2020, you could look at Harrell and Gonzalez, and say, well, Gonzalez had a lot of primary votes peeled off by Echohawk and Farrell, so she might be real strong in the general. After an RCV primary, I wouldn’t bet a nickel on a 2nd winner. I.e., expect no campaign contributions.

        • Yeah, so the way to think about it is that in AV you can get crossover voters, where they lend extra support to more than one candidate, but with RCV, you’re only ever supporting a single candidate, so you’ll stay within your ideological faction.

          In Seattle, we have roughly two ideological factions. For lack of better terms, I’ll call them “moderates” and the “progressives.” Voters are roughly 50/50 on the factions, it usually shifts +/-5 points in an election. So let’s imagine 50% of the voters rank 3 candidates within their faction. If any single one of those candidates has more than 26%, the other two are guaranteed to be eliminated, because they’re sharing 24% of the electorate.

          With Approval Voting, candidates always have incentive to break out of their ideological mould and appeal to more voters. They have a reason to take on issues that don’t split on ideological lines and pledge to work on them so that more voters from across the spectrum lend them approval as well. Voters can do this because if they truly like the candidate, it doesn’t really cost them anything to support two candidates instead of one.

          That tends to drive up the total approval across the board. In a contested mayoral primary in St. Louis, for example, the second place primary winner had 46% approval. That’s someone that worked real hard to appeal to a lot of voters (first place had 57%).

  5. If the council is going for a top two general election replacing this approval voting method, that is absolutely bonkers.

    Top two general still gives us the same one or the other garbage voting method.

    Approval voting (or an actual ranked choice voting for the general) gives us more than two options and allows us to vote for more than one option without penalizing us.

    I’ll be emailing and calling my councilmembers to voice this concern.

  6. I dunno. I just always voted for the candidate I preferred. Somehow I must have believed this was supposed to work. I did this for almost 60 years. 100% voting record, until I was required to declare a party affiliation to vote in a primary election. I don’t recall political parties being mentioned in our national or state constitutions. Have I missed something?

    All these schemes reek of political/social engineering, which never seem to work out, but merely confuse. In some democracies we like to think of as less enlightened, you vote and then stick your thumb into indelible purple ink. The purple thumb becomes a matter of pride.

    Here in the world’s oldest democracy, we’re consumed with voter manipulation, from every party, from every side. All these ploys promote confusion, indifference and malaise. As the great 20th Century philosopher John Belushi put it so well: “Wise up.”

    • i’m inclined to agree with you (though still undecided about this voting proposal) but definitely puzzled by your remark about “political/social engineering” —- as if it’s a negative.

      EVERYTHING government does is social engineering.

      If we didn’t want social engineering we wouldn’t have government.

  7. The USA was built on the “one person, one vote” principle. Changing it is crazy stupid.

    How many eligible voters are voting in elections now? Want to lower that number? Make it more complicated with ranked choice voting or some other anti-democratic scheme. Who in the world has the time to keep track of 30 fringe candidates? Ranked choice will bring out the nut jobs in force.

  8. IRV is such an undemocratic mediocre voting method. I cannot for the life of me understand why people continue to propose it as a “reform” in the US.

    It does not make it safe to vote honestly for your favorite, it doesn’t fix the spoiler effect, it violates majority rule, and it discards some voters’ preferences while honoring others. Why is it STILL so popular?? There are hundreds of alternative voting methods, most of them much better. Why does this one system still get shoved down our throats? Because it perpetuates the status quo?

    • Sorry, the essence of ranked choice is that the votes of losers are reassigned according to each voter’s ranking until one achieves 50%+1. Therefore the majority rules. We all get the candidate who satisfies the most voters. I can’t understand how approval voting gets us to the best candidate, but seems to elect the least worst.

      • Not sure “best candidate” will ever be any subject of agreement. We should be shooting for “best/fairest process” and be prepared to explain why.

        And RCV doesn’t make a ton of sense with a top two open primary. There will never be a situation in which two candidates have 50%+ of the vote, that’s mathematically impossible!

  9. Introducing competing, confusing voting systems at the exact moment in history where the integrity of the ballot box is in question in this national political climate is very risky. I hope this debate doesn’t devolve into the morass of accusations of rigging and cheating we hear from red state leaders.

    Also ranked choice voting for a top two open primary vs approval voting – it’s not clear to me there is a practical difference. Except maybe that ranked choice is way more confusing and ripe for breeding paranoia about the system.

    Careful with this one.

  10. Both systems introduce an unpredictable element of gamesmanship and voting strategy into the election process. We saw that in NYC in the last weeks of the mayoral primary where there were lots of talks between various campaigns about forming alliances (“I’ll urge my supporters to vote you second if you do the same”), and in the waning days Yang called on his supporters to vote someone else second (though she did not reciprocate). Those kinds of meta strategy efforts to manipulate the results are corrosive to the integrity and legitimacy of the electoral process, imo.

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