When Seattle Approves launched a campaign to put a new voting system known as approval voting on the ballot, it stepped on the toes of more established advocates for another approach: Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).
The two camps of election nerds both insist they had the better idea. RCV advocates at FairVote worry approval voting would favor bland, moderate candidates. Seattle Approves argues its system would favor “popular” candidates and require less education. Perhaps most compelling, approval voting is, as a Seattle Approves canvasser put it, “kind of like RCV.” But it’s actually got a campaign to get on the ballot.
Seattle Approves’ arguments drew enough signatures to put the issue up for a vote, but on Friday afternoon, FairVote announced that they want to let voters settle the debate.
Approval voting allows voters to fill in the bubbles for as many candidates as they want. Then, the two candidates with the most votes move on to the general election. Logan Bowers, a pot shop owner and failed challenger to Councilmember Kshama Sawant, works on the Seattle Approves campaign, and has argued the system would favor the Jessyn Farrells and Colleen Echohawks of the world, reducing the polarization that can bitterly divide top candidates under the current system.
Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Everyone’s first choices get tallied, and if a candidate gains a majority of the first-choice votes, they win. But if no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The voters who picked the eliminated candidate for their first choice then have their second choice counted and added into the vote totals. This continues until one candidate wins a majority. In Seattle’s case, this process would be used in primary elections to select the top two candidates.
Last month, the city clerk determined Seattle Approves had submitted enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. But one more step remains: The city council must put the measure on the ballot.
The council could pass the initiative on its own as an ordinance, making it law without sending it to the voters in November. The council could also reject it or let it sit for 45 days, which puts it on the ballot in the next election for the voters to decide. Or—and here’s where it gets interesting—the council could reject the initiative and pass a different measure relating to the same subject to compete with the original measure on the ballot.
In the Monday council briefing, Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a bill that would put a competing measure on the ballot to use RCV in primaries in order to give voters a “full and robust discussion” on both the newer and longstanding alternatives.
In true RCV, Seattle would need to combine primary and general elections. Right now, it can’t do that. But FairVote said if a compromise isn’t made to just use RCV in the primary, we could get stuck with a system the group believes would be much worse.
“By putting AV and RCV on the ballot side-by-side the City Council is giving voters the opportunity to decide between a proven, tested improvement (RCV) or a mediocre side-step (AV),” said FairVote organizing director Steph Houghton.
Bowers called RCV without a combined primary and general election “untested” and “unscrutinized,” a criticism FairVote often lobs at approval voting, which has only been adopted in Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri. Bowers warned that Seattle opens itself up to a “high risk of manipulated or gamed elections.” Similarly, advocates for RCV warn that approval voting will violate both the federal and state Voting Rights Act.
The election nerds and their supporters on social media, known to duke it out online, reacted to the possibility of RCV joining approval voting on the ballot over the weekend.
Some expressed frustration that RCV advocates won’t have to go to the trouble of collecting signatures.
Do what Seattle approves did. Get the signatures and get your reform on the ballot yourself— Electoral Reformer🗳️🔰🇺🇦 (@ElectoralRef0rm) July 9, 2022
Bowers also chimed in to finger-wave intervention from the Council.
After years of inaction, the Council is suddenly considering putting their thumbs on the scale and rewriting the rules of their own elections.— Logan Bowers (@loganb) July 10, 2022
Why? Some council members are afraid of a citizen-led voting reform initiative. https://t.co/RDvttbTFIV
The council has until August 2 to decide what to do next, but some councilmembers are already known RCV supporters, including Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lewis.
A previous version of this article initially said that if the council puts RCV on the ballot, each reform would have its own prompt and whichever measure gets the most votes would win. However, Seattle Approves advocates claim that the ballot would ask voters if they want an election reform of any kind and then, in a separate prompt, ask voters if they want RCV or approval voting. Wayne Barnett with Seattle Ethics and Elections committee could not confirm how the ballot would look and Lewis said the council is still working it out with attorneys.