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The Impact – Alternative Voting Systems on the Ballot

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

Ballots have been mailed and voting is underway across the state. Voters in three jurisdictions are voting on the election system itself. Ballots in Clark County and San Juan County will present voters with the option of ranked choice voting in future local elections. RCV is a system where voters select their number one choice for an office, their number two choice for an office, number three and so on.  

If Clark County voters approve ranked choice voting they could use it to elect county officials starting in 2026. In San Juan County the switch is contingent on the state legislature approving ranked choice voting for any election. Amendments in  both counties  would set the stage for eliminating the primary election and choosing between every candidate who qualifies for the ballot in one election.  

In Seattle, voters will decide whether to adopt a different form of voting in local primaries for mayor, city council and city attorney. They have two alternative voting systems  to pick from. 

Proposition 1A  would authorize approval voting where voters select all the candidates they support in no particular order. 

All of the votes on each individual ballot would be counted and the two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election. 

Proposition 1B would authorize ranked choice voting, where voters mark their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on for a given race. 

In an instant runoff RCV election scenario, if any candidate has more than 50% of the vote after the first count, they win.  If there’s no clear winner after the first round, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the voters who had marked them number one have their vote count towards their number two candidate. The cycle continues with each round of counting  until one candidate is declared the winner. In a primary election the same  process of elimination continues until two candidates are left to advance to the general election.

Fargo, North Dakota and  St. Louis, Missouri  are the first two cities in the U.S. to use approval voting in city elections. 

A number of cities  use ranked-choice voting including Minneapolis, New York City, and San Francisco.  Two states have adopted RCV, Alaska and Maine. It’s also on the ballot this year in Nevada. 

In Washington  no counties or cities currently allow ranked choice voting. However, Pierce County approved ranked-choice voting  for county positions in 2006. 

 Pierce County’s RCV election framework eliminated the primary . All qualifying candidates for county executive positions appeared on  one ballot for a single  instant runoff election. The county repealed ranked choice voting in 2009.  RCV supporters and detractors disagree on why it was repealed.

Advocates of both approval and ranked choice voting argue that changing how elections are conducted could result in  elected leaders who appeal to a broader array of the electorate.

They strongly disagree about which alternative will accomplish that. 

Approval Voting Supporter

“Approval voting, especially in the context of a Seattle primary where we have a very large field usually of a dozen or more candidates, it produces much more accurate results, meaning that the candidates that are elected are much closer to the true will of the voters. And it also shifts the incentives much better towards those candidates working harder in the interests of all voters, not just special interest groups or or a small base of core support,” said Logan Bowers, co-chair of the Seattle Approves campaign.

“You get election results on election night just as you do today with Proposition 1A and that is different than with Proposition 1B, where you do not get any meaningful results for over a week in Washington state because you have to have every last ballot before you can do any tally with Proposition 1B.”

 RCV Supporter

“Ranked choice voting is absolutely superior to approval voting. Look, approval voting can be used for some things in your day to day life, and it’s a great way to make some decisions. It’s not a great way to choose our elected representatives. People make choices. People rank things throughout their day and they do the same thing when it comes to having multiple candidates on a ballot. They rank those candidates. They say, I prefer this candidate to this candidate to this candidate. Approval voting doesn’t allow that option. You either like them or you don’t like them. It’s not an improvement. Ranked choice voting is an opportunity to improve our system, and that’s what it does,” said Stephanie Houghton, managing director of FairVote Washington.

“I don’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils. I get to choose the people that I want to represent me.”

Voting Alternative Skeptic

“I hear supporters of both types make a lot of like grass is greener sort of claims,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant based in Seattle. 

“I don’t know that it’s all that predictable what the overall impact in Seattle is going to be. I think there will be some impact in races, but by and large, given that it’s only going to be done in the primaries and the top two finishers are going to move on to the general election the way we do it now, we’ll just use RCV to determine the top two.”

Kaushik is concerned about the potential impact of the charter amendments in Clark and San Juan Counties.  

“The thought is, let’s just get rid of the primaries, get rid of the top two primary system,” said Kaushik. “I actually think that is a major, major shift away from our top-two system, which I think works really well.” 

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