Theyre holding out for Ranked-choice voting.
They're holding out for Ranked-choice voting. Courtesy of the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County

The League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County (LWVSKC) does not want you to sign Initiative 134, a ballot measure to bring Approval voting to Seattle elections.

“It’s not really so much that we hate Approval voting, but we need to have really high expectations for our election systems, and so it's really about advocating for the most equitable model we can implement,” LWVSKC President Heather Kelly said over the phone.

While signature gatherers for the measure have earned a reputation for advertising Approval voting as an election system similar to Ranked-choice voting (RCV), LWVSKC and another group called Represent Women said it’s worth holding out for RCV when it comes to selecting a system that would lead to gender parity and diverse representation more broadly.

Can the tech bro initiative help women?

Approval voting systems allow voters to vote for every candidate on the ballot rather than only one favorite. Late last year, Seattle Approves, a campaign bankrolled by tech bros and Californians, set out to collect enough signatures to put the system to a vote this November.

This campaign coincides with growing traction in local and statewide efforts to introduce Ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If none of the candidates win more than 50% of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets cut, and the voters who supported that candidate get counted toward their second choices, and so on until one candidate reaches a majority.

RCV has been around the block a few times, and the election system helps women, according to Represent Women, a program of FairVote, which advocates for RCV. Out of the 19 cities that used RCV from 2010 to 2019, women made up a minority of the candidates but a majority of the winners in 17 cities.

For now, arguments for Approval voting rely mostly on models, but the system has only been put into practice in Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri, where Approval voting benefited women, according to the Center for Election Science, a group that promotes Approval voting.

“All of these alternative voting spaces are dominated by men,” said Allison Sardinas, the National Campaigns Manager at the Center for Election Science, which has so far poured over $170,000 into the Seattle Approves campaign. “Men approach voting from a really analytical perspective. And very frequently, they lose the human element and why this really matters.”

“Popular” candidates

The women election nerds on both sides of the argument stressed the importance of removing barriers for women and other historically disenfranchised populations.

Kelly said that both Approval voting and RCV require candidates to step out of their bubbles – even candidates who appeal to the numerical majority of voters – and connect with different voting blocs.

In theory, candidates would have to gain wide appeal under both systems. Seattle Approves has clung to this argument throughout its campaign, asserting that Approval voting won’t lead to bland moderates winning but rather “popular” candidates.

However, Women Represent Executive Director Cynthia Richie Terrell said that “popular” candidates would actually translate to “status-quo” candidates, because Approval voting does not express preference for one candidate relative to another. In the same vein, Kelly said “popular” candidates could equate to candidates we are used to seeing in power: White men.

While Kelly said RCV was not a “silver bullet for sexism,” she argued that without ranking the candidates voters could more flagrantly express bigotry by approving of everyone but marginalized candidates.

Sardinas pushed back on the claim that Approval voting would preserve the status quo. In the 2021 mayoral election in St. Louis, Approval voting resulted in two women rising to the top in the primary. Ultimately, Tishaura Jones won, becoming the city’s first Black woman mayor. In contrast to LWVKC, the League of Women Voters St. Louis adamantly supported Approval voting.

Spoiler city

Advocates of both RCV and Approval voting said the spoiler effect presents the biggest barrier to women candidates. “Spoiling” happens when multiple candidates with similar ideologies share the same base and thus split the same pot of votes, making each do worse in the election even if they’re all expressing popular ideas.

Sardinas said spoiling can happen based on identities, too. Even if two women have different ideas, because of biases, some voters may see the two women candidates as redundant.

According to Terrell, the fear of spoiling incentivizes party leaders to ask candidates — and particularly women of color — to "wait their turn," rather than run against a preferred candidate and risk spoiling the vote.

Advocates of both systems believe their idea could alleviate the spoiler effect.

Sardinas said that Approval voting helped solve the issue of spoiling in St. Louis, because the system elected two progressive women. Kathleen Farrell, unit leader of League of Women Voters of St. Louis, said progressive candidates historically suffered from the spoiler effect in the one-party town. After the election system was implemented, Farrell was surprised by the power of progressive voters, and she credited Approval voting for the left-leaning candidates’ success.

The RCV camp is not convinced. LWVSKC argued that Approval voting would not address the issue of spoiling because voting for a candidate you tolerate without indicating a preference hurts the chances of your favorite.

Women, please guide us

Though RCV advocates said Approval voting misses the mark in ensuring a more diverse and representative government, Sardinas stressed the simplicity of Approval voting. She said it would be much easier to explain to her immigrant grandparents.

In Seattle, advocates for RCV worry a win for Approval voting would set back the progress they have made only to implement a less-tested system. Both camps said they want a more representative government, and even though the need is urgent, RCV advocates argue the proven results of RCV will be worth the wait.

With some grumbling from the RCV advocates, both sides agreed that either system would be a step away from a system that leaves a lot to be desired. In a city whose council has exceeded gender parity in seat distribution, Kelly said there is still more work to be done, and a change in the election system could help.

“It's awesome that we have women, and especially women of color, in really highly visible leadership roles,” Kelly said. “And there's still so much room for improvement across socio-economic categories, physical and mental abilities, immigration status, and all sorts of identities.”