Should the Seattle area adopt new voting systems for elections? The conversation grows


There is a growing conversation in the Seattle area about changing how local elections work by allowing voters to choose more than one candidate.

Earlier this month, a group of activists launched a campaign for a 2022 ballot measure that would switch Seattle to the “approval vote” for the city’s primary election. However, not all reformers believe this is the best approach and more efforts are underway.

Under the approval vote proposal, voters in a primary could vote for more than one candidate. The two candidates with the most votes would go through the general election as they do now (state law requires a top-two primary for cities like Seattle). In general elections, voters could only choose one candidate, as is currently the case.

Seattle would be the only U.S. city to pass the approval vote, after Fargo, North Dakota, which first used the system last year, and St. Louis, which first used the system. times this year.

Many other jurisdictions have switched to a somewhat similar system called priority voting, including Maine, New York, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. In this system, voters can vote for more than one candidate while ranking them in order of preference. The candidates with the fewest first choice votes are eliminated in the rounds and their votes are redistributed to each elector’s next choice until a victory threshold is reached.

Preferential vote supporters have been organizing across Washington for years, and Girmay Zahilay, a member of the Metropolitan King’s County Council, introduced legislation last summer to allow preferential voting in county elections, pending voters’ passage of a charter amendment.

Zahilay initially hoped to put the question on the ballot in November this year, but his colleagues have asked for more time to study the matter and lawmakers in Washington are considering this winter discussing the possibility of allowing all cities to use the. preferential voting with no primaries, so he put the idea aside.

Seattle campaign

The new approval vote campaign, called Seattle Approves, must draft and submit a petition, then collect more than 26,000 signatures in 180 days to qualify for a ballot.

The campaign leaders are Logan Bowers and Troy Davis. Bowers is a software engineer who owns cannabis stores and ran unsuccessfully against City Council member Kshama Sawant in 2019. He placed sixth in primary and did not advance. Davis is a tech entrepreneur.

Bowers and Davis say their campaign has about a dozen senior volunteers and has conducted polls, using a grant from the Center for Elections Science, a nonprofit that promotes approval voting. They have registered a campaign committee and say they plan to collect signatures next year.

Supporters of the approval vote say it could, to some extent, address issues such as split votes, strategic voting and political polarization. Vote sharing occurs when candidates with similar ideas withdraw from each other’s support. Strategic voting is when a voter chooses the candidate they can accept over the candidate they prefer because they doubt that the latter will win. The current system arguably encourages polarization, as primary candidates can advance by focusing on a segment of the electorate.

“You would see the candidates being a lot more aggressive in wooing every last voter,” Bowers said.

Supporters also say the approval vote could provide a more accurate picture of voters’ views and could push candidates forward with broad appeal. They say it would be relatively easy to understand and implement.

Another view

Some voters may prefer to leave the current system alone, and even among reformers not everyone is convinced that the approval vote is the best option.

“We think it would be an unfortunate choice for Seattle to go in that direction (of approval voting), when ranked voting has such a record of success,” said Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, who lobbied for preferential voting. His organization has chapters in 12 counties and the support of various community and elected leaders.

“Where people tend to have strong preferences about their top picks and care a lot about the outcome… ranked voting is best,” she said.

Ranked choice voting addresses the same issues but allows voters to express their views with more nuance and has been used much more in the real world, where campaign strategies and political advertising influence voter behavior, say the voters. supporters. It has a record of improving representation of women and people of color in American cities, dating back a century, they say.

“The choice by ranking has been around for much longer. There are a lot more case studies and examples, ”Zahilay said.

Zahilay said he believes both systems would be improvements over current primary election laws because they both allow voters to vote for multiple candidates, encourage candidates to “campaign for everyone” and encourage cooperation between like-minded candidates, “rather than the toxic internal struggles that we see. now.”

Critics of the approval vote say many voters using the system should continue to vote for a single candidate, as voting for multiple candidates could hurt their preferred candidate’s chances. When voters choose multiple candidates, the approval vote could reward intermediate or status quo candidates that no one likes the most, possibly excluding candidates from under-represented communities, some critics also worry.

“On the positive side, people are looking for solutions,” said Kamau Chege, director of the Washington Community Alliance and supporter of FairVote Washington. On the flip side, he said, “the approval vote in Seattle is a niche movement, mostly made up of white engineers, who I think didn’t take the time to listen to the organizations and communities of color ”working on elections.

The real world

Pierce County tried ranked voting from 2007 to 2009, in part as a way to ditch the elective primaries, and then stopped using it, when the entire state moved away from the primary in the choice.

But across the country, 43 jurisdictions used the system in their most recent elections and more than 50 are expected to use it in their next elections, according to the national organization FairVote.

In Saint-Louis last year, an approval vote measure was passed with 68% of the vote. One impetus was the division of votes among progressive candidates, said Tyler Schlichenmeyer, who helped lead the campaign.

Residents of St. Louis were initially confused about the idea, Schlichenmeyer said. “But after a few seconds of explaining the problem and the solution, they were like, ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,'” he said.

With the approval vote in the mayor’s primary of Saint-Louis this year, two progressive candidates came forward, Schlichenmeyer said. Voters chose an average of 1.56 candidates, meaning that some still voted for just one candidate. The average was closer to 1 in the city alderman races. “We are confident that the approval vote worked as expected,” Schlichenmeyer said.

Seattle’s political landscape is different, and it’s impossible to know how the approval vote would have changed the results here this year, in part because a different system might have influenced who turned up and how.

For better or worse, it’s possible to imagine incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes advancing in the general election with a vote of approval, rather than being pressed by challengers to his right and left, if enough voters on either side decide to hedge their bets, Bowers said. ..