After last November’s election—which concluded a bruising year-and-a-half of presidential politics that left just about everyone feeling misused—a group of Seattle residents got together to discuss how to make things better.
“After the last election, there were a lot of people who felt their votes aren’t being counted due to the two-party system,” says Cindy Black. “People were like, what are the (other) possibilities?”
Black, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Fix Democracy First, is now heading up an effort to answer that question: A Seattle charter amendment that would shift the city to a ranked-choice balloting system.
The system, used in 13 cities across the United States including San Francisco and Minneapolis, asks voters to rank their preference of candidates, rather than casting a vote for a single candidate. Ideally, the system takes away the threat of a minor candidates acting as a spoiler, empowering voters to cast their ballots for candidates they most agree with without worrying about electability. For example, in this year’s mayoral primary, had a voter been 100 percent on board with Dave Kane’s campaign, but seen Jessyn Farrell as the most palatable of the “top six” candidates, they could have put Kane as their No. 1 choice and Farrell as No. 2 and continued ranking down the rest of the 21 candidates. If no candidate got more than half of all No. 1 votes in the first round of counting, then the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes (Dave Kane) would be eliminated and the No. 2 choice on those eliminated ballots would be added to the totals of the remaining candidates (in the case of our hypothetical voter, that vote would transfer to Jessyn Farrell), and so on (go here for a more detailed explanation.)
Ranked-choice balloting is one of several policy proposals advocated by a national group called FairVote. The group bringing the charter amendment calls itself Fair Vote Washington, with chapters in several cities, though it is still working on formally partnering with the national group.
The charter amendment was approved for signature gathering last week, and volunteers plan to be out with petitions this weekend, Black says. The group needs 31,000 valid signatures turned in by early March to qualify for the ballot; because it is a city charter amendment, the measure would appear on the next municipal ballot, in 2019.
If passed, ranked choice balloting would be used in city primary elections to determine the top two candidates that would face off in the general election. Ranked-choice would not be used in the general election, since with only two choices the purpose is defeated. However, in the long run, Fair Vote Washington hopes to eliminate primaries altogether, since ranked-choice balloting removes the need to whittle down candidates.
To that end, Fair Vote Washington, with help from The Sightline Institute, is working simultaneously on an effort to pass a state law allowing for local jurisdictions to use ranked-choice voting in general elections.
“If the state would just let us, then cities and counties could eliminate primaries, which would save them money,” says Kristin Erberhard, senior researcher with Sightline, who has written extensively about election reform.
The Seattle charter amendment has a provision that says Seattle could forgo primaries as state law allows.
Erberhard says that Sightline has been looking at election reform for a while—it was a driving force behind Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program—but that interest has definitely grown in the last year.
“After this presidential election, there’s suddenly some attention on how elections work, or don’t work,” she says.
While everyone—including the victor—had complaints with how the 2016 election went, Bernie Sanders supporters, third party candidates, and Never-Trump Republicans were especially vocal in their dissatisfaction with a process that put the two most unpopular general election candidates in modern history up for the Oval Office.
As such, Black says, volunteers behind Fair Vote Washington come from a wide array of political backgrounds.
“We have people that are independent, we have members of the Democratic Party, libertarians, Berniecrats. It’s a real mix of people, people who don’t feel like they fit anywhere,” she says.
Kendall Le Van Hodson, director of external affairs at King County Elections, says switching to ranked-choice voting would be feasible, but not necessarily easy.
“It definitely would be a big deal. We just put in a new tabulation system, and nothing we have is set up to have ranked-choice voting,” she says.
Hodson says the vendor the county works with for ballot-counting technology has worked with ranked-choice voting in other jurisdictions; Fair Vote Washington has notified the office about their efforts, which has allowed them to start talking about what switching to the new system would look like.
“It’s definitely going to take some time and development,” she says.
Were Seattle to switch to ranked-choice voting, it would not be the first jurisdiction in Washington to give it a shot. In 2006, Pierce County voters approved a measure that implemented ranked-choice. However, by 2009 voters wanted to switch back. The reasons were myriad, but a big one was that in the first election using ranked-choice, perennial candidate and gadfly Dale Washam was elected to county assessor-treasurer. Washam was widely considered unqualified for the job, and many voters blamed the tricky mathematics of ranked-choice for elevating him to office. The system was also expensive to implement.
In an article published Tuesday on Sightline, Eberhard argues that the Pierce County episode should not be reason for Seattle or Washington state to reject the idea outright. Erberhard argues Washam would have won either way; Pierce County made some avoidable decisions that increased the costs like printing separate ballots for races that included ranked-choice elections and traditional elections; and Pierce County officials who benefit from two-party system took efforts to give the system a bad name.
“Pierce County teaches reformers that it’s not over when the ballot initiative passes. Pierce County had some remarkably dedicated backers … but the reform needed a bigger groundswell of support,” she writes.
Black says she hopes they will have such a groundswell in Seattle.
“This is not a partisan issue, this is a people’s issue,” she says.