Logan Bowers, who took last place in the 2019 primary for city council in District 3, wants to bring approval voting to Seattle, a system that lets you vote for everyone.
Logan Bowers wants to bring the approval voting system to Seattle. RYAN CAVANAUGH

In 2019, Hashtag Cannabis co-owner Logan Bowers ran for council in District 3. He nearly cracked 7% in the primary, which put him in last place. But after knocking on the doors of over 5,000 Seattle voters, Bowers said he gained a deeper understanding of how voters think, an understanding that inspired him to pursue election reform to fix what he calls “the worst possible voting system.”

On Wednesday Nov. 17, Bowers and a group known as Seattle Approves announced an initiative to bring approval voting to city elections. He’s totally stoked, but the movement for ranked-choice voting (RCV), which has gained traction in the last couple years, disapproves – pun 100% intended, I will not back down from this.

“There's a lot of momentum, a lot of education that's already been done in ranked-choice voting,” FairVote Washington communication manager Ben Chapman said. “It makes more sense to just work on the reform that there's already momentum for than to try to insert a whole other idea into the conversation.”

What is this "approval voting?"

Approval voting works exactly the way it sounds. Voters would get their primary ballot in the mail and fill in the bubbles for as many candidates as they approve of. The two candidates with the largest numbers of approvals would move on to the general election.

Bowers said approval voting favors popular candidates who appeal to the most voters, which he believes will be especially helpful in narrowing down crowded races, such as the 2021 battle for mayor.

“Right now the camps get pretty Orthodox – you got to be all in or all out, but there's a lot of voters that are kind of in the middle,” Bowers said. “I think you would see more candidates adopt a lot of the policies that are just actually popular with voters.”

Bowers argued that approval voting would have pushed through candidates such as former State Rep. Jessyn Farrell and YouthCare interim CEO Colleen Echohawk, who he believes would have fared better in the general election than City Council President Lorena González, who got bodied by the more conservative mayor-elect, Bruce Harrell. In the primary, Echohawk earned 10% of the vote share and Farrell earned 7%, coming in a distant 3rd and 4th, respectively. González trailed Harrell by two points with 32% of the vote.

Others seeking election reform call the push for approval voting “misguided.”

The cheese pizza of candidates

FairVote Washington director Lisa Ayrault said "it would be a really unfortunate choice" for Seattle to choose approval voting.

FairVote Washington advocates for ranked-choice voting, which skips the primary process and allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins more than 50% of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the voters who supported the eliminated choice get counted toward their own second-choice. This process repeats until one candidate reaches a majority.

Bowers said eliminating a primary for RCV is a worthy conversation, but it’s only legal in three non-partisan charter counties in the state.

In Washington state, FairVote is currently lobbying for RCV in King County, which is one of the three non-partisan charter counties that can legally combine the primary and the general into a single round of voting. State law prevents other jurisdictions from removing the primary, but Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley is working to change that in the state Legislature.

Seattle is one of 10 charter cities that, along with seven charter counties, can experiment with other models for its primary so long as the jurisdiction also has a standard top-two general. These jurisdictions can use approval voting or RCV in the primary now, but the state law would have to change to allow all jurisdictions to eliminate the primary like in RCV.

Ranked-choice voting gained popularity after San Francisco first used the system almost twenty years ago. That popularity continues to grow — 43 jurisdictions used RCV in their most recent elections, and more than 50 jurisdictions are projected to use RCV in their next elections.

Meanwhile, three jurisdictions in the country have implemented approval voting: St. Louis, Missouri; Fargo, North Dakota; and Dartmouth elections.

“The election geeks will tell you that theoretically this voting method has this or that or this other benefit, but when those methods are actually used with real people, we often learn that there are flaws that aren't necessarily obvious,” Ayrault said. “We need to kind of give them a shakedown, and approval voting simply hasn’t had that yet.”

Though RCV advocates said they don’t have enough data to fully understand the real-world application of the approval system, they have theories.

Kamau Chege is the director of Washington Community Alliance, which promotes RCV and proportional representation. Chege likened approval voting to choosing what kind of pizza to order for a group of friends. To satisfy all the competing likes and dietary needs (damn vegetarians) and come up with a pizza everyone is okay with, eventually you will settle on a cheese pizza or on the least-offensive veggie pizza, Chege said.

This is probably a good way to ensure none of your vegetarian friends go hungry, but it’s not so good for contested elections, he added.

“What you'll end up with is everyone approving the most inoffensive candidate, and that inoffensive candidate will learn that the way to be most inoffensive is to promise to not change things very much, which is not the general sentiment of most voters,” Chege said. “Most voters think the status quo is bad, and they want to change things about it, but they just disagree about what to change.”

The plurality of the election will be with the majority every time, Chege said. In Seattle, that means white voters.

The equity issue

“I think on the positive side, it's good that people are thinking about how our current system of single-choice, winner-take-all elections doesn’t work and are searching for solutions,” Chege said. “Approval voting doesn't seem to solve those issues and could, in fact, make things worse, especially for minority voters.”

Bowers lauds the system’s simplicity as an equity angle, as he believes it would drive up engagement, especially for what he calls “time-broke voters.”

Ayrault countered that approval voting asks voters to be even more strategic and to devote even more time to voting. In RCV, voters get to support their first choice and indicate back-ups without hurting the chances of their first choice. For example, if a voter loved Andrew Grant Houston in the 2021 primary and just liked a few more popular candidates, an approval voting system could not communicate that.

Though Ayruat said that adding a new option in the mix may slow down election reform in Seattle, advocates for RVC and the new push for approval voting will carry on with their separate projects in spite of each other.

Bowers and his team will start collecting signatures for approval voting in Seattle starting in the new year, with hopes of getting on the November 2022 ballot. Bowers said Seattle voters will not see his name on the ballot again, but we may see his election reform.

“You can look back on the 2019 race and see what issues I really care about individually, and then probably estimate where the approval is on the city on those,” Bowers said of a hypothetical council run in 2023. “But, no. I'm just excited to bring better elections for our future and have that be my contribution.”