Editor’s Note: Electoral reform, particularly ranked-choice voting (RCV), is very much in the air. It is on the ballot in Seattle and Portland, and Alaska recently had its first election using the system.
Two choices for reform
The systems we use to elect our leaders vary from one state to another and sometimes even from one city to another. What’s the best way? Voters will get to pick between two different systems on the Seattle ballot this November.
Last week leading proponents of the two different systems – approval voting and ranked-choice voting – “crossed swords” at the 46th Legislative District Democrats meeting. Doing battle were Approval Voting’s advocate Logan Bowers and Ranked-Choice Voting champion Lisa Ayrault.
Seattle voters will have an opportunity to decide whether or not this city needs a new system of voting for its leaders. And, sepatate from how they vote on the need for a change, which system do they favor: Proposition 1A — approval voting — or Proposition 1B – ranked choice voting?
The Zoom debate among active North End Democrats was a fairly civil affair – no actual bloodshed or “swords” unsheathed. Instead the discussion was a thorough look at the pros and cons of two very different approaches to picking our leaders.
Bowers, co-chair of the initiative campaign for Seattle Approves, argued that Approval Voting “is the best possible of all known systems and we could have it next year.” Bowers explained that Approval Voting allows primary voters to select one or more candidates – as many as they want. He contended the system is “great at identifying voters’ choices; it tends to eliminate negative campaigning, dampen extremism, and get rid of ‘spoilers.’” Results can be readily tabulated and the system is easy to audit, Bowers asserted.
Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, pointed out that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) “is now the fastest growing system in the nation.” She argued that “voters like it, it’s simple to use and they want to keep it.” Few can argue with its growing acceptance. It’s now used by 11 million voters in two states, one county, and 52 cities as well as military and overseas voters in six states.
In rebuttal, Bowers pointed out that RCV takes considerable time to count all the votes and requires special software and expense. He estimates it likely could not be used in Seattle until 2027, whereas Approval Voting could happen almost immediately. Ranked Choice results take time to compute, noting the length of time required to finalize the Alaska vote.
Ayrault cited the problems with Approval Voting, which so far has been implemented only in Fargo, North Dakota, and St. Louis, Missouri. She stated that the system is untested and, in the opinion of those familiar with Washington state’s “one person, one vote” rule, may not be constitutional here.
At the close of the meeting, the 46th Legislative District announced its endorsements for the November election. When it came to voting systems, more than two thirds endorsed a yes vote on a new voting system and approval of Proposition 1B – Ranked Choice Voting.
There are early indications that Washington Republicans are already lobbying to defeat RCV in Clark County, arguing the system increases the cost of elections and adds to the number of days required to learn about the election’s outcome. Neither state party favors these electoral reforms.
The timing is awful
In politics, as in these proposed electoral changes, timing is critical. I think the timing is very bad for instituting ranked-choice voting or other changes. Let me give three reasons.
The first is: voters today are “from Missouri” and are very skeptical about such changes. The new voting systems are complicated, which breeds resistance and avoidance. And it’s not very clear who is behind the proposals and what hidden agendas they may have. Ranked-choice voting, for instance, is heavily funded by an unknown Wisconsin businesswoman, Katherine Gehl, who sold her family’s company and now has funds to invest in these centrist national campaigns. Nor have there been enough results from RCV to feel confident about winners and losers. And is “centrism” the proper answer to our political woes?
The second reason is the poor track record of recent changes in voting in Seattle. One was the shift to district elections for seven of the nine city council members, advocated by some conservative businessfolk and ending up by cementing in the more liberal council members. The other, Democracy Vouchers, is certainly catching on but may also turn out to be more of an incumbent protection scheme.
The third reason, related to the first, is the absence of a thoughtful, comprehensive, balanced effort to produce a proposal for electoral change, which usually comes from a committee of freeholders carefully balanced to include both parties, business and labor, people of color, etc. I grant that assembling such a trusted entity in polarized Seattle is both difficult and lengthy. But a narrow-based advocacy is bound to raise skepticism and give reluctant voters another reason (along with its complexity) to decline to vote or distrust democracy.
Badly needed in Portland
Our increasingly cantankerous political atmosphere has made the climate riper than a September tomato to adopt ranked-choice voting. In my view, ranked choice is badly needed in troubled Portland, which stands alone as the last major American city using what is known as the commission form of government, a dysfunctional and outdated mode of governing where you have elected leaders – many with scant expertise – serving as administrators for basic public services. Much of this would be tossed out by voters in the November election.
It is also high time to give ranked-choice voting a fair shot, both nationally and in the Northwest, particularly in Rip City, where political power has long been wielded by wealthy, white residents.
First reason: This new system of voting should achieve a modicum of moderation. And Lord knows protest-wracked Portland could use a dose of that. With ranked choice, a candidate will realize that he or she is in peril of losing the second-choice votes if they go “scorched earth” for votes. Ranked choice will empower moderates who feel disenfranchised from both parties’ extremists and can scoop up second- and third-choice votes if no one wins a majority on the first round. That should encourage civility in the campaign.
Second, ranked choice promotes majority support, rewarding a candidate with the most support across the entire electorate, not just the most passionate or special-interest base. Also, it gives a voter more choice, instead of feeling compelled to vote for “the lesser of two evils,” as in typical voting.
Third, ranked-choice voting also offers the important benefit of eliminating the need for multiple elections. No more runoff elections. A winner emerges in a single trip to the polls thanks to “instant runoff.”
Finally, with ranked choice, conscientious voters no longer have to play pundit and figure out who in the primary might be the most electable. No one is penalized for voting for someone you believe in, even if that candidate is unlikely to win.
Back to Portland’s situation. In mid-June, Oregon’s Charter Commission, a 20-person volunteer group, voted overwhelmingly to implement ranked-choice voting if voters greenlight the overall initiative in November. Ranked choice would enable voters to cast a ballot for someone they support and other worthy candidates. Another benefit: getting more women and people of color elected. The Commission also said ranked choice, if approved, means an end to the May primary in Oregon, which is a good move, considering that turnout is usually lower in primaries and May is too far from decision time in the Fall.
Alaska makes the case
The initial election experience with ranked-choice voting in Alaska suggests an improved election formula that will favor candidates who do not rankle voters. The August vote dashed House hopes of a celebrity grifter, ex-Gov. Sarah Palin, while putting a Trump-targeted Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a path to reelection in November.
No voting system should carry partisan designs, but ranked-choice voting works to expand voters’ choices and open up elections. The new voting system in Alaska eliminates partisan primaries, a reform Washington has already adopted. All candidates regardless of party go on the ballot, which resulted in 48 who sought to fill remaining months of the late Rep. Don Young’s term in Congress. (A new fall election will be a rematch for the next two-year Congressional term.)
The voters of Alaska will get a choice of four, rather than the usual two, candidates on their November ballots. They will make a top choice, but also rank other candidates second or third. Such ranking puts at a disadvantage the most polarizing, extreme, or obnoxious folk seeking office. Among the benefits of the new system: low-turnout party primaries, particularly in summer, tend to draw highly motivated voters from far ends of the political spectrum. (Just such a primary and runoff in Texas sent Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.) Similarly, in Alaska’s 2010 Republican primary, a Tea Party candidate, Joe Miller, upset Sen. Murkowski. She had to run as a write-in the following November, and she became the first such candidate to succeed since South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1956.
Here is how ranked-choice voting worked in Alaska last month, in the special election for the House seat that Young held for 49 years. Three top candidates emerged: Alaska native and former legislator Mary Peltola, a Democrat, and two Republicans, Sarah Palin seeking a comeback, and Nick Begich III, high tech entrepreneur and GOP product of Alaska’s premier Democratic family. Peltola ran a positive campaign keyed to state issues. The Republicans tore into each other, with Begich charging that Palin picked cash over Alaska when she quit as Governor in 2009.
None of the candidates reached 50 percent of first-place votes, required to win outright. Peltola led with 39 percent followed by Palin at 31 percent. Begich was eliminated. The results triggered an instant runoff. The winner was decided by allocating second-place choices of his voters between Peltola and Palin. Nearly half of those voting for Republican Begich could not stomach fellow Republican Palin: 30 percent of them marked Peltola as second choice while 19 percent didn’t make a choice. Two weeks after the primary, Peltola was pronounced the winner.
As an August visitor up north, I can report that the Alaska Division of Elections produced lucid TV spots and web explanations of the new system. After narrowly approving ranked-choice voting in 2020, polls showed strong approval for the new system. Predictably, the main howls of protest came from Palin, who called it “weird,” and Trump: “It’s a totally rigged deal, like a lot of other things in this country.”
With just Republicans voting, Sen. Murkowski lost her 2010 primary to the Tea Party’s Miller. Under the new system, with a broader electorate and higher turnout, she ran a comfortable 12,300 votes ahead of Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka and is a strong favorite to win in November.
Would ranked voting improve elections in Seattle and Washington? We have a spotty record of reforms. District elections have given the city an overmatched, overly ideological City Council. The impact of democracy vouchers is easily overridden by “independent” expenditures. Under the current system, summer primaries remain low-interest, low-turnout, activist-dominated affairs. Seattle voters are often left with a less than satisfying November ballot, witness the 2021 race for Seattle City Attorney. New talent is hard to attract, and competent moderates who would bring talents to public office are discouraged from running in a left-dominated city. Statewide, Washington has been denied viable alternatives, witness the 2020 gubernatorial election of Loren Culp versus Jay Inslee.
So why not open the windows of democracy to fresh breezes? Give voters more choices. As seen in Alaska, ranked-choice voting can undercut the politics of polarization. Identity and trust – Peltola is a respected figure in Alaska – trumped ideology. The winner courted a wide spectrum of the electorate, not just a following of the like-minded. We need that in more places.
What’s the problem in Seattle? Making matters worse in Portland
Oh Lord, apparently my Post Alley colleagues have drunk the “we need voting reform” Kool-Aid (maybe David Brewster only drank half a Dixie Cup). My simple, one word question, to all of you: why? Why do we need to restructure, yet again, our voting system? What is the problem you’re trying to solve here?
Near as I can tell, our voting system in Seattle works pretty well as is. We don’t seem to have any problem electing women or minorities to municipal office. Our mayor is a mixed race Black and Asian man who defeated a Latina candidate in the general election last November, after both emerged from a crowded (and diverse) primary. Six of our nine City Councilmembers are women, four of those non-White. So no, we’re not Yakima, or the American South, where race-based voting is a real phenomenon that undercuts minority representation. Not even remotely.
And our recent municipal general elections have provided us clear choices, between candidates who reflect the central fault line in Seattle politics, between Stranger-and-Twitter left ideological warriors and Seattle-Times-y consensus-compromise libs. Those campaigns surfaced important debates on contentious issues, and then the voters made a choice. Attention was high, turnout was pretty good, and the people got their say. The majority ruled, as it should. So again, I’m mystified: what, exactly, is the problem you all are trying to solve here?
I’ll posit the following theory: that the recent moves to reform voting systems – here and elsewhere – are rooted in large part in growing public anxieties that our democracy, as currently constituted, is failing. That may well be true, but the reason for that is not rooted in our electoral systems. It’s about extreme polarization, the growing chasm between the worldviews of the American left and right – or in Seattle, between the culturally cosmo-activist left and the culturally traditional center-left. This chasm makes both sides feel they are one bad election result away from Armageddon.
Given that reality, polarized voters find comfort in the belief that all that’s necessary to save democracy is a few structural or voting reforms (voter ID requirements for the right, or more early voting for the left, or approval voting, or ranked choice, or whatever). Implementing this or that will make everything better, and will – and this is really the true motivation of most of these efforts – put a thumb on the scales of the system so that, in a deeply and nearly evenly divided country, more people on our particular side of the divide will get elected.
So moderates cling to the unsubstantiated belief that approval voting or RCV will elect more moderates, while lefties dream the opposite: that, say, ranked choice will somehow catapult the Lorena Gonzalezes of the world over the Bruce Harrells. This grass-is-greener wishful thinking is why Seattle voters are going to overwhelmingly agree this November to adopt one of the two options pitted against each other on the November ballot.
And you know what? Whichever new system they choose, the reform won’t fulfill the grandiose promises its proponents claim. Honestly, it probably won’t change a whole lot about who wins and who loses our races. Yes, if implemented, either of these systems will have some impact, but what impact exactly is largely unpredictable, and very likely marginal.
In some instances, it may boost more moderate candidates (that’s arguably but not clearly what the use of RCV did in the Alaska special election). In others it may hurt them (last year, Eric Adams, the moderate mayoral candidate in New York, was way ahead in the initial count last year but almost lost to a much farther left candidate as the ranked choices were tallied). And it will, on the negative side of the ledger, add a needless and discrediting layer of gamesmanship to our elections, as various campaigns and candidates form alliances of convenience (“tell your voters to also vote for me or pick me second, and not to vote for or rank our mutual enemy Candidate Z, and I’ll do the same!”). And in the case of RCV it will annoyingly delay the results (election officials won’t even be able to begin the ranked choice eliminations until all the mail ballots are received, which will slow the final results by a week or more).
The one positive thing I will say is that, while the two choices we have here are both needless and counterproductive, at least these proposals are not as bad as the system adopted in Alaska, or the one under consideration in Portland. Alaska, aside from adopting RCV in its general elections, also instituted, as Joel Connelly mentions, a Top 4(!!!) primary. Which is idiotic. The whole point of primaries is to winnow the field, creating a clear and representative choice for voters. Our Top-Two jungle primaries do that well. But advancing four out of the primary is nonsense. In the regular Alaska House race this year, that meant that an also-ran candidate who got only 3.8 percent of the vote moved on to the general, along with the three serious candidates, rendering the primary borderline pointless. Lame.
And OMFG, Portland! Ellis Conklin is correct that Portland’s current commission form of government is antiquated and in need of change, though it’s hardly the main source of that troubled city’s political problems – feckless, cowed, and overly ideological leadership is. But this proposal? Ellis, please put down your bong and get a grip on what’s actually on the ballot down there. The replacement system a group of (admittedly well intentioned) clueless activist types on PDX’s Charter Commission put forward is a ludicrous mish-mash of semi-incompatible reform ideas. RCV, yes, but also multimember districts, and a nonsensical version of a weak mayor system.
The Portland proposal, which is really as much a governance reform scheme as it is about elections reform, is to divide the city into four districts, and each would use RCV to elect the top three(!!!) finishers to the Council. So, very plausibly, a fringe candidate getting below 10 percent of the vote in a district would be elected to the Council along with a candidate who garnered more than 50 percent.
That is, I would respectfully suggest, BATSHIT CRAZY. Moreover, the separately elected mayor would have no control over city departments, but would appoint a city manager who would. This would be the mayor’s only consequential role, other than getting to vote if there’s a tie on the 12-member Council. Again, crazy. It’s quite impressive in its way that Portland is so dysfunctional that it is on the verge of ending the terrible, outdated system it has now, only to replace it with something obviously worse.
About six months ago I was drafting a piece I never finished that had the working title, “As Shitty as Things Are In Seattle, At Least We’re Not Portland.” If this cockamamie scheme passes, I may have to go back and finish it. So I should be thankful, I suppose, that the two choices before us here in Seattle aren’t worse than they are. But hey, I have faith. If our anxious and polarized citizenry of Seattle keeps inventing problems with our election system that don’t actually exist, no doubt we’ll catch up to Portland soon enough.