Voting in Washington is supposed to be as easy as it gets. The ballot shows up in the mail with plenty of time to fill it out and explanatory information about what’s at stake. With access to the ballot box facing attacks in states across America, there’s a certain comfort to the established access to mail-in voting here, as Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said this week in a committee meeting.

“Really what we have is the gold standard,” Kuderer told her colleagues. “And we are truly envied by other states in terms of our accessibility, the security, the random audits. And how we do things in this state is admired by many of our colleagues across the country.”

Shoring up this steadiness ought to drive policy. Yet instead, too often, multiple levels of government have given evidence of habitual overthinking to add fresh wrinkles, rather than buttressing what works and streamlining away known challenges. That’s evident from Seattle to the legislators in session in Olympia. Attention that could be going toward eliminating evident kinks in the system instead seems to have focused on adding fresh experiments to the paperwork that comes with doing one’s civic duty.

The system’s unrepaired gnarliness shows itself pretty often. A few examples:

∙ In Seattle’s Capitol Hill and nearby neighborhoods, residents received three mail-in ballots in four months — for a general election, a city council recall and education measures — and a fourth invitation to go online and elect county conservation district leadership.

∙ The state has specific requirements for public ballot boxes, such as a ban on electioneering. Yet because ballots also come with postage-paid return envelopes, the distinction from regular old mailboxes is more technical than practical to voters. That fuzzes up the rationale for being restrictive about what can happen near one but not the other. In that Seattle City Council recall, Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s supporters set up a ballot printer and campaign literature right outside a Broadway post office, which is not a “voting center” in the law’s eyes but is, in fact, a place where one can submit a vote.

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∙ You don’t have to sign up with a political party to participate — except, that is, to vote in the all-important presidential primaries. For those, the big political parties set the rules without paying the bills. Neat trick.

This is a mishmash even without considering how many aspects of government voters are asked to make informed decisions about. Washington elects a daunting nine statewide independent executives, from governor to superintendent of public instruction. Only North Carolina and North Dakota elect more. There are ballot initiatives. There are school levies that require supermajority approval. There are party committee officers on county ballots and nonbinding advisory polls with confoundingly calculated price tags gauging voter frustrations every time the Legislature installs a tax rate. 

A hefty and helpful state-issued voter guide explains the issues, and voters get nearly three weeks to get the ballot done and mailed. You might see why people with lives that don’t revolve around government engagement need the assist. But a question that deserves more attention is how great the deleterious effects get from asking so much of voters, so often. 

The instability of direct democracy is a civics lesson out of Ancient Greece. A more modern, and American, lesson can be taken from the noxious undermining of faith in elections the former president is spewing after his 2020 loss.  

The arcane setup of the Electoral College complicates and reduces the playing field for presidential elections. Donald Trump’s demand for Georgia to “find 11,780 votes” and lies about vote-counting in Phoenix, Philadelphia or Detroit could have had national consequences if they moved swing states from blue to red, even though the national popular vote margin was in the millions. A convoluted process creates points of vulnerability.

Western Washington isn’t in some bubble exempted from this spreading cynicism. “Stop the steal” rioters descended violently on Olympia the same day the other Washington was besieged. Senate Bill 5679, authored by Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley — he’s also running for Secretary of State — asserts “an ongoing lack of trust in election integrity.” The state’s election director was directly targeted with violent online threats after the 2020 election and left that job within the year. These politics are local. 

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Within this toxic climate, it’s fundamentally unsound to take Washington’s overcooked elections setup and do anything but work toward a more comprehensible process. 

Yet Senate Bill 5584 would allow localities from counties to fire districts to switch over to ranked-choice voting, where voters numerically score candidates for an office in order of preference. A Senate committee voted Jan. 26 to advance that bill. The method has ardent fans, detractors and folks who seem to vacillate between the two poles. A New York City Council member criticized ranked-choice voting as enabling alliances against “moderate working people and traditionally marginalized communities.” (His criticisms persisted even after his mayoral candidate won).

Advocates in Washington hype the method making the exact opposite claim. Depending on the outcome of SB 5584, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said he wants to ask county voters in 2023 to adopt ranked-choice voting, in some form. Meanwhile, national money is flowing into Seattle to push the city electorate to adopt “approval voting” — you say yes to all acceptable candidates, not just one. 

There’s a plausible outcome where in a few years, a Seattle voter opens the mail to do their civic duty and is greeted by at least three sets of instructions to parse — multiple check-marks for city offices, numerical for countywide candidates and the traditional pick-one setup for state and federal offices. Anyone looking forward to that?