A campaign for a 2022 ballot measure that would move Seattle to “approval voting” for the city’s primary elections has attracted a big-money backer.
The Seattle Approves initiative campaign, launched in November, accepted $160,000 last month from the Center for Election Science, a nonprofit national think tank focused on the “approval voting” method, according to financial disclosures.
Under the Seattle Approves proposal, voters could vote for multiple candidates in a crowded primary race. The two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election as they do now. In the general election, voters would vote for only one candidate, as is the case now. Approval voting is similar to but not the same as ranked-choice voting, which some other Seattle-area reformers want to implement here.
The contribution to Seattle Approves from CES, first reported in the Washington Observer newsletter, increases the chances that the initiative campaign will be able to collect enough petition signatures to qualify for a ballot this year.
Seattle Approves, which has raised about $200,000 total, will need to collect more than 26,000 signatures from voters within 180 days of finalizing its petition. In the recent past, initiative campaigns in the city have relied partly on paid signature-gatherers, with various levels of spending. Seattle Approves intends to do the same: Much of the $160,000 from CES will be used to hire signature-gatherers, said Logan Bowers, a leader of the campaign.
For comparison’s sake, last year’s Compassion Seattle campaign for homelessness policies spent more than $700,000 on signature-gathering and qualified for the ballot (but was removed by a judge for reasons not related to signatures). In 2015, a campaign for voting reforms like democracy vouchers spent about $170,000 on signature-gathering, qualified and succeeded. And in 2013, a campaign to create City Council districts spent about $119,000 on signature-gathering, qualified and succeeded.
Initiative campaigns have other expenses, including advertising. But signatures are a crucial hurdle, and are what CES had in mind when the nonprofit awarded Seattle Approves a $160,000 grant, executive director Aaron Hamlin said. Earlier, CES awarded Seattle Approves a smaller grant to conduct polling, Bowers said.
“Our mission is to empower voters and to work with really strong groups on the ground,” Hamlin said in an interview. “Seattle Approves … communicated that people in Seattle really want this and the only barrier was being able to afford the signature-gathering.”
Founded in 2011 with “a lot of engineers and mathematicians who were interested in voting methods as a way to improve our democracy,” CES is incorporated in California but is a “virtual organization” with staff all over the country, Hamlin said. The nonprofit is “extremely nonpartisan,” he said.
CES publishes annual reports that list the organization’s donors. The most recent report, which covers 2020, lists eight donors who gave at least $10,000 (the report treats corporate employer matches as part of contributions by individuals). Dylan Hirsch-Shell, described on LinkedIn as a firmware engineer at Tesla, gave more than $100,000, according to the report. In 2019, the Open Philanthropy Project gave more than $1 million.
Seattle would be only the third U.S. city to adopt approval voting, following Fargo, North Dakota, and St. Louis. CES contributed $200,000 to the 2020 ballot measure that converted St. Louis to approval voting and $50,000 to the 2018 ballot measure that converted Fargo to the method.
Seattle Approves leaders include Bowers, a software engineer who owns cannabis stores and who ran unsuccessfully against City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in 2019, and Troy Davis, a tech entrepreneur.
Proponents say approval voting could provide a more accurate picture of voter views and would advance candidates with broad appeal. They say the system would be relatively simple to implement.
Meanwhile, proponents of a different voting method are pushing their cause in the state Legislature. The nonprofit Fair Vote Washington and allies want the Legislature to pass a bill this year that would allow cities like Seattle to adopt ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting is used in many more jurisdictions than approval voting, including Maine, New York City, Minneapolis and San Francisco. Using the method, voters can choose multiple candidates while ranking them in order of preference. Proponents of ranked-choice voting in the Seattle area have questioned the depth of community organizing behind Seattle Approves and argued approval voting could advantage middle-of-the-road candidates.