Seattle voters may be able to choose between two new electoral models in November, as city council members consider adding ranked-choice voting to the ballot, countering an initiative to establish approval voting.
If adopted by voters, both proposed voting systems would aim to create voting outcomes that reflect the will of more people.
“Right now candidates frequently win the primary with between 20% and 30% of the vote. So that means seven or eight out of 10 voters didn’t want that candidate, but they become one of only two choices in the general election,” Logan Bowers, who leads the Seattle Approves campaign, said Tuesday, noting that primary winners in the 2021 St. Louis mayoral election had 46% and 57% support through approval voting.
But on Tuesday, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis proposed the council add another reform option, ranked-choice voting, to the ballot.
Ranked-choice voting, which is used in over 50 jurisdictions nationwide, similarly allows voters to indicate support for multiple candidates, but also ranks the selections in order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they win the election. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-preference rankings is removed, and the second preference of voters who supported them are tallied. This process continues until someone has a majority.
“RCV is a tested and proven way that communities can better engage voters and improve representation,” FairVote Washington Executive Director Lisa Ayrault said in a statement last week, citing support from community organizations like the Washington Community Action Network and More Equitable Democracy.
Council members did not discuss the alternative proposal on Tuesday, but set a special council meeting for Thursday afternoon to deliberate on the ballot measures.
Lewis, who introduced the alternative, declined to comment ahead of that meeting, citing city ethics rules which restrict when and how elected officials can comment on ballot initiatives.
Several community members called in to support Lewis’s proposal during the council meeting, but advocates of approval voting say the council alternative could muddy the water for voters if both appear on the ballot.
“So voters would have to vote for voting reform without knowing which reforms they are getting, which means a lot of voters are much more likely to vote no,” Bowers suggested Tuesday.
“It’s like saying, ‘Hey, you want to split a pizza? It’s either gonna be meat-lovers’ or vegetarian, but I won’t tell you which until you’ve already bought it,” he added.
Stephanie Houghton, organizing and legislative director for FairVote, said both sides would be responsible for campaigning for their own proposals, regardless of the opposition.
Ranked choice would also take longer to implement, according to King County Elections, because it would require new ballots with additional bubbles for ranking and the development and certification of new vote-counting software. In all, the county estimates it could take three to five years to implement if approved, according to a spokesperson, who said approval voting would be “more straightforward.”
Still, Houghton argues that ranked choice would be the most effective reform path, due to the number of cities that have adopted RCV.
“Ranked-choice voting has the ability to bring real, measurable change, and approval voting is making promises that it can’t keep,” she said. “Ranked choice actually helps, and it’s been proven, unlike approval.”