King County is weighing a new voting system.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay introduced legislation last week seeking to amend the county charter to allow ranked-choice voting for county positions.

The measure would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, instead of voting for just one candidate for public offices such as King County executive, assessor, director of elections, prosecuting attorney and county council.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the method eliminates runoff elections, promotes civility in campaigning and captures more information on a voter’s preferences. Those against the system say the process could turn away voters who view it as too complex.

“Instead of pitting communities against each other in zero-sum elections, ranked-choice voting allows like-minded communities to vote together as coalitions,” Zahilay said in the meeting. 

A few council members said they had reviewed guides to ranked-choice voting and that the concept is promising, especially when it comes to diversifying politics. Councilmember Rod Dembowski said he is currently agnostic to the idea, but said he would be concerned about losing the discussions that occur between voters during the primary.

How ranked-choice voting works

Currently in King County, voters select one candidate in the primary, which is nonpartisan. Then the top two candidates advance to the general election, where voters, again, get to cast a vote. 

Advertising

Under a ranked-choice voting system, voters would instead fill out a ballot in the November general election, and mark which candidates are their first choice, second choice and so forth.

A primary may be held to winnow the list of candidates if there are more than five.

Then to tabulate a winner, all the first-choice votes for each candidate are added up. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice votes, they win the election outright.

But if that doesn’t happen, counting continues in rounds. In each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and votes are redistributed to each voter’s next choice. This process continues in until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.  

King County residents may get a say

If King County Council approves the measure, the switch to ranked-choice voting must be approved by residents in the November election. 

However, the ordinance is “permissive,” meaning the change does not have to be adopted immediately even if approved by voters. County council members could take the time to hammer out details and set a timeline to implement the new voting system, Zahilay said in the meeting last week.

Advertising

Council members will continue to debate the merits of the proposal following last week’s initial discussion. They will meet on July 7 to review more information on the issue from council staff, before final consideration on July 20.

The King County Charter Review Commission studied the issue in 2019 and recommended that King County Council convene an independent commission to review ranked-choice voting.

The commission noted in its report that ranked-choice voting can potentially reduce political polarization, increase voter turnout, empower minority voters and eliminate the need for runoff elections. As for the potential negatives, the report stated that the King County Elections Department would have to educate voters on the new system and have to print new ballots and reprogram their voting machines.

Ranked-choice voting enthusiasts have admitted that the concept is difficult to explain on paper, Councilmember Kathy Lambert in the meeting said.

Voting system gaining traction in the U.S.

Ranked-choice voting has gained popularity in the U.S. and has been adopted in dozens of cities and towns in recent years. Oakland, California, has used ranked-choice voting for the past decade to elect a mayor and City Council members. And San Francisco uses the method to elect a mayor, city attorney and other political positions.

This year, the primary for New York City’s mayoral election will be conducted by ranked-choice voting. Last November, Alaska voted in a ballot measure to become the second state to adopt ranked-choice voting (Maine was the first).

Advertising

State law currently prevents certain localities from adopting ranked-choice voting, though King County has the authority to enact the change with a charter amendment.

Pierce County voters briefly used ranked-choice voting in 2008 and 2009, but ultimately repealed the system shortly after, according to the News Tribune.

A legislative push this year to allow all Washington cities and counties to adopt the system failed to advance out of committee.