Jul 7, 2022 - News

Seattle's approval voting initiative, explained

Illustration of a ballot box and question mark sticker.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Voters in Seattle are being asked to decide on a new way of voting for future elections.

What's happening: If approved, Initiative 134 would allow Seattle voters to choose more than one candidate per race in primary elections for city council, mayor and city attorney.

  • The measure recently qualified for the ballot, meaning Seattle voters will be able to give the plan a thumbs up or a thumbs down this November.

Why it matters: Supporters of approval voting say it would help ensure the two candidates who advance from crowded primaries are the most representative of the overall electorate, by allowing voters to select a range of options instead of only one.

Yes, but: Critics argue that the system would put too much power in the hands of the smaller number of people who vote in the August primary election, which has lower turnout than the November general election.

What they’re saying: If I-134 became law, voters in city elections could choose any number of candidates on the August primary ballot. There would be no limit, said Logan Bowers, co-chair of the committee behind the initiative.

  • “The instruction is, instead of picking one, pick all you approve of,” Bowers told Axios.
  • He said the system would eliminate “strategic voting,” in which voters decide their first candidate has no chance of advancing, so they pick someone else.
  • It also would address situations where candidates with similar views end up splitting the primary vote, which can lead to a candidate few voters approve of advancing, Bowers said.
  • “I would expect to see candidates work harder to appeal to more voters,” Bowers said. “Because in an approval system, your voters don't have to sort into factions where they're all or nothing behind one candidate."

The other side: Kamau Chege, director of the Washington Community Alliance, called the approval voting proposal “very dangerous.”

  • Chege’s organization, a network of groups representing people of color, told Axios that an approval voting system would allow “the mostly affluent voters” who participate in the primaries “to dictate to everyone else what the general election choices will be.”
  • Right now, those wealthier, whiter and more politically engaged primary voters only get to pick one candidate, Chege said.
  • But “under approval voting, they don't just get that one vote,” he said. “Now, they get to put together the two finalists for everyone else."

Between the lines: Chege and members of Washington Community Alliance instead support ranked-choice voting, a system in which primary voters can choose multiple candidates, but must rank them in order of preference.

  • Under such a system, voters aren’t actually getting more than one vote, because if their top candidate loses, their vote is transferred to their second choice, Chege said.
  • Bowers told Axios that ranked choice voting isn’t a practical solution partly because it could require a change in state law for cities to implement.
  • Approval voting, by contrast, can be implemented without having to involve the Legislature, Bowers said.
  • Advocates for ranked-choice voting counter that Seattle could implement ranked-choice in the primary without state approval, as long as the city holds a top-two general election in November.

By the numbers: Already, the campaign for I-134 has raised $462,000.

  • Much of that — $208,000 — is from the Center for Election Science, a nonprofit that advocates for approval voting.
  • Another $135,000 was donated by Samuel Bankman-Fried, a billionaire CEO of a cryptocurrency exchange based in the Bahamas.

What's next: I-134 won’t appear on the August primary ballot, but will be on the ballot in November.

  • If approved, the new voting system would go into effect no later than 2025, and possibly as soon as next year.

Of note: Even if the measure is approved in Seattle, elections for other races — such as for the Legislature and the King County Council — will still use the old system where voters are asked to choose one candidate.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how Seattle may be able to adopt ranked-choice voting.

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