There’s a growing conversation in the Seattle area about changing the way local elections work by allowing voters to choose more than one candidate.
This month, a group of activists launched a campaign for a 2022 ballot measure that would move Seattle to “approval voting” for the city’s primary elections. Not all reformers think it’s the best approach, however, and there are other efforts underway.
Under the approval voting proposal, voters in a primary could vote for multiple candidates. The two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election as they do now (state law requires a top-two primary for cities like Seattle). In the general election, voters could choose only one candidate, as is the case now.
Seattle would be the only the third U.S. city to adopt approval voting, following Fargo, North Dakota, which first used the system last year, and St. Louis, which first used the system this year.
Many more jurisdictions have moved to a somewhat similar system called ranked-choice voting, including Maine, New York City, Minneapolis and San Francisco. In that system, voters can vote for multiple candidates while ranking them in order of preference. The candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated in rounds and their votes are redistributed to each voter’s next choice until a winning threshold is reached.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting have been organizing across Washington for years, and Metropolitan King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay introduced legislation this past summer to allow ranked-choice voting in county elections, pending passage by voters of a charter amendment.
Zahilay initially hoped to place the question on this year’s November ballot, but colleagues asked for more time to study the matter and Washington lawmakers this winter plan to discuss the possibility of letting all cities use ranked-choice voting with no primaries, so he shelved the idea.
The new campaign for approval voting, called Seattle Approves, needs to write and submit a petition and then collect more than 26,000 signatures in 180 days to qualify for a ballot.
The campaign’s leaders are Logan Bowers and Troy Davis. Bowers is a software engineer who owns cannabis stores and who ran unsuccessfully against City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in 2019. He placed sixth in the primary and did not advance. Davis is a tech entrepreneur.
Bowers and Davis say their campaign has about a dozen core volunteers and has conducted polling, using a grant from the Center for Elections Science, a nonprofit that promotes approval voting. They’ve registered a campaign committee and say they plan to collect signatures next year.
Proponents of approval voting say it could, to some extent, address problems such as vote splitting, strategic voting and political polarization. Vote splitting is when candidates with similar ideas take support away from each other. Strategic voting is when a voter picks the candidate they can stomach rather than the candidate they like best because they doubt the latter can win. The current system arguably encourages polarization, because primary candidates can advance by concentrating on a segment of the electorate.
“You would see candidates being much more aggressive in courting every last voter,” Bowers said.
Proponents also say approval voting could provide a more accurate picture of voter views and could advance candidates with broad appeal. They say it would be relatively simple to understand and implement.
Some voters may prefer to leave the current system alone, and even among reformers, not everyone is convinced that approval voting is the best option.
“We think it would be an unfortunate choice for Seattle to go in that direction (of approval voting), when ranked-choice voting has such a proven track record of success,” said Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, which is pushing for ranked-choice voting. Her organization has chapters in 12 counties and support from various community leaders and elected officials.
“Where people tend to have strong preferences about their first choices and care a lot about the outcomes … ranked-choice voting is the best,” she said.
Ranked-choice voting addresses the same problems but allows voters to express their views with more nuance and has been used much more in the real world, where campaign strategies and political advertising influence how voters behave, proponents say. It has a record of improving representation for women and people of color in U.S. cities, dating back a century, they say.
“Ranked-choice has been around much longer. There are way more case studies and examples,” Zahilay said.
Zahilay said he thinks both systems would be improvements over current primary election laws because they both allow voters to vote for multiple candidates, incentivize candidates to “campaign to everyone” and encourage cooperation between like-minded candidates, “rather than the toxic infighting we see now.”
Critics of approval voting say many voters using the system can be expected to continue to vote for only one candidate, because voting for multiple candidates could hurt their favorite candidate’s chances. When voters do choose multiple candidates, approval voting could reward middle-of-the-road or status quo candidates nobody likes best, possibly shutting out candidates from underrepresented communities, some critics also worry.
“On the positive side, people are searching for solutions,” said Kamau Chege, director of Washington Community Alliance and a FairVote Washington supporter. On the other hand, he said, “Approval voting in Seattle is a niche movement, mostly of white engineers, who I don’t think have taken the time to listen to the organizations and communities of color” working on elections.
The real world
Pierce County tried ranked-choice voting from 2007 to 2009, partly as a way to ditch pick-a-party primaries, then stopped using it, when the whole state moved away from pick-a-party primaries.
But across the country, 43 jurisdictions used the system in their most current elections and more than 50 are slated to use it in their next elections, according to FairVote’s national organization.
In St. Louis last year, an approval voting ballot measure passed with 68% of the vote. An impetus was vote splitting between progressive candidates, said Tyler Schlichenmeyer, who helped lead the campaign.
St. Louis residents were initially confused about the idea, Schlichenmeyer said. “But after a few seconds of explaining the problem and the solution, they were like, ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,’” he said.
With approval voting in the St. Louis mayoral primary this year, two progressive candidates advanced, Schlichenmeyer said. Voters chose 1.56 candidates on average, meaning some still voted for only one candidate. The average was closer to 1 in the city’s alderman races. “We’re confident that approval voting worked the way it was intended to,” Schlichenmeyer said.
Seattle’s political landscape is different, and it’s impossible to know how approval voting would have changed the results here this year, partly because a different system could have influenced who ran and how.
For better or worse, it’s possible to imagine incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes advancing to the general election with approval voting, rather than being squeezed out by challengers on his right and left, if enough voters on either side decided to hedge their bets, Bowers said..