The Seattle Approves campaign team is on the ground, clipboards in hand, with the goal of collecting the 26,000 signatures needed to put approval voting on the ballot in the 2022 general election. Even in this early phase of the initiative, election nerds are at each other’s throats, arguing whether or not the voting system is even legal.
“Does approval voting violate federal or state law? Maybe. Maybe not,” said George Cheung, director of More Equitable Democracy, which advocates for ranked-choice voting. “But it certainly runs counter to the intent of the laws, which is to provide opportunities for communities of color to be meaningfully represented.”
Approval voting is an election system that allows voters to vote for every candidate they approve of, instead of only selecting one favorite. Cheung said in a perfect world this reform could be better than our current top-two primary system, but in the context of highly racialized voting, some argue that approval voting violates the Federal Voting Rights Act and the Washington Voting Rights Act.
The Federal Voting Rights Act prohibits vote dilution, which occurs when an election system or redistricting plan waters down the voting strength of a politically aligned minority group. The Washington Voting Rights Act, which is a little more vague, also aims to ensure everyone has equal opportunity to elect their candidate of choice by empowering local governments to change voting policy to avoid exclusion.
Approval voting operates as a majoritarian system, so it’s great for majorities, but it would dilute minority groups who tend to vote somewhat in blocs, Chueng said.
Kamau Chege, the director of Washington Community Alliance, which also lobbies for ranked-choice voting, once likened the system to choosing a pizza order for a group of friends. To come up with a pizza that everyone is okay with, eventually you will settle on a bland, cheese pizza, Chege said. If you’re the only one who likes pineapple on pizza, then tough luck. If you're vegan, starve.
Logan Bowers, a pot-shop owner who is leading the charge on Seattle Approves, said that approval voting favors “popular candidates.” Some read “popular candidates” as “candidates that white people like.” In a city that is mostly white, Cheung and Chege argued that approval voting could lead to minority groups getting stuck with a less-than-ideal candidate that the majority likes.
By this logic, our current, winner-take-all system also puts marginalized communities at the mercy of the majority, and so Cheung thinks local jurisdictions will need to adopt some version of proportional representation to give communities of color a fair say. Under the Washington Voting Rights Act, the City Council could tailor a local solution that fits Seattle without putting it to a vote. He said he and other racial justice groups would prefer that process rather than the initiative process.
“ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” – Logan Bowers
Bowers, who placed last in his 2019 campaign for Seattle City Council's District 3, called the naysayers' claims unsubstantiated “FUD,” which he defined as “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.”
“I’m not a lawyer, but if randos declaring things illegal on Twitter was how it worked, Donald Trump would be a year into his second term,” Bowers said in an email.
According to Bowers, the campaign’s legal counsel at Pacifica Law Group called approval voting “unambiguously” legal under both state and federal law. I wrote to their lawyers for an explanation and I will update if they respond.
Bowers argued that approval voting is exceptionally strong at providing representation because it would force candidates to work hard to offer something for everyone on the campaign trail.
The Twitter beef would have to go to court
It’s hard to know for sure how approval voting would shake out in Seattle. The model has only been tried in St. Louis, MO; Fargo, ND; and Dartmouth College, which no longer uses it. Seattle Approves supporters point to the mere existence of these systems as evidence of their constitutionality, but just because a system has been implemented does not mean it is legal. Yakima violated people’s voting rights for decades until the local Latino community could wrangle the money for an expensive voting rights lawsuit.
As in Yakima, a lawsuit would answer the question, but, so far, no one has put up the money to sue.
In Seattle, nobody checks to see if an initiative is legal at any time during the process, the office of the City Clerk said in an email. The City Clerk checks that a petition has a top margin of at least one inch, but not if the content is constitutional.
The City Attorney can decide to challenge an initiative, which is uncommon but not unheard of. The last time the city took action on an initiative was in 2011, when then-City Attorney Pete Holmes challenged Initiative 101, which sought to prevent the state from using city streets or property to build the Highway 99 tunnel.
I wrote to the City Attorney’s Office about Seattle Approves and I will update if I hear back.
Legal or not, Seattle Approves has until July to gather signatures. Bowers said the campaign has collected 10,000 verified signatures so far, and he expects they will wrap up by the end of March. They’ll be able to do that thanks to nearly $245,000 raised so far, according to financial disclosures.
With a donation of more than $170,000, the Center for Election Science stands as the campaign’s largest donor to date. A 2020 annual report that the San Francisco-based nonprofit posted to its website listed several corporate donors, including AmazonSmile, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others. Dylan Hirsch-Shell, a software engineer at Tesla and a self-described member of the #YangGang, topped the list of donors that year with a contribution north of $100,000.