Jul 15, 2022 - Politics

Seattle City Council puts ranked-choice voting on the ballot

Illustration of hands holding ballots and trying to vote.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Voters in Seattle will be asked to choose between two types of election reforms — approval voting vs. ranked choice voting — this November.

Driving the news: The City Council advanced a proposal on Thursday that, if approved by voters, would adopt ranked-choice voting for future city primary elections.

  • Under such a system, voters would rank candidates in order of preference, instead of being asked to choose a single candidate in the primary.

Catch up fast: The council proposed ranked-choice voting as an alternative to another type of election reform, approval voting, which was already headed to the ballot as a citizen initiative, I-134.

Why it matters: Both proposed voting reforms aim to reduce division in politics by creating a substitute for our single-choice system.

  • But supporters of the rival plans disagree about which system would choose candidates that are most representative of the electorate — and which would best empower people of color.

What's next: The council's action on Thursday means both measures will appear on the fall ballot.

  • Under approval voting, voters can select all the primary candidates they approve of. There is no limit on the number of candidates they can choose, and no ranking by preference.
  • Alternatively, voters could opt to keep the current system, in which they choose one candidate per race and are not allowed to voice their opinions on multiple candidates.
  • City Council member Andrew Lewis, who sponsored the measure to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot, said at Thursday's council meeting he wanted to allow voters "to choose the election form that is more broadly adopted across the United States," as opposed to the "sparsely adopted" approval voting.

What they're saying: Critics of approval voting say it would allow the whiter, wealthier voters who take part in the low-turnout August primary to have an outsized say in who advances to the general — essentially, giving them extra votes.

  • Kamau Chege, executive director of Washington Community Alliance, said ranked-choice voting is a "common-sense solution" used in more than 50 jurisdictions across the country.
  • He said approval voting, by contrast, could prompt a challenge under the state Voting Rights Act, and potentially violate the principle of one person, one vote.
  • "I would be surprised if we didn't end up with litigation" with an approval voting system, Chege told Axios Thursday.

The other side: Supporters of approval voting, meanwhile, say ranked-choice voting would be more complex to implement and explain to voters.

  • Logan Bowers, co-chair of the approval voting campaign committee, said he thinks the council has "confused the ballot" by adding another election reform measure for voters to consider in November.
  • Bowers said he thinks some council members might be afraid of having to run for election under an approval voting system.
  • "Approval voting is a system that is known to promote candidates who are popular — and you have to work as a candidate to get the approval of every last voter," Bowers told Axios on Thursday.
  • He said approval voting has been used with success in St. Louis, where voters used the system in 2021 to elect the city's first Black female mayor.

Of note: Either type of voting reform, if enacted, would apply only to the August primary races for city attorney, mayor and city council.

  • Other races, including those for federal and state offices, would not be affected.
  • Similarly, neither reform would alter the mechanics of the November general election, in which voters would still be asked to pick only their top choice.
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