Trending in the PNW: RCV.
Five jurisdictions in the Pacific Northwest could adopt ranked choice voting this November. Portland and Seattle are two of them.
At least ten American jurisdictions are scheduled to vote on whether to adopt ranked choice voting this November.
Half of them are in the Pacific Northwest.
Could we be looking at a regional wave of election reform?
This fall, voters in Portland and Seattle will decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting for city elections.
Both reform efforts have the potential to become watershed moments for the ranked choice voting movement in the Pacific Northwest.
But given the controversy surrounding both ballot measures, it may not be smooth sailing all the way to passage.
Five PNW jurisdictions could adopt RCV this Fall.
In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s Benton County is the only jurisdiction that currently votes by ranked ballot.
Watch an RCV tutorial from Benton County’s Sam Sasquatch.
But Benton could soon be joined by five other jurisdictions.
On November 8, Portland and Seattle will vote on ballot measures to adopt ranked choice voting, and so will three counties in the region: Oregon’s Multnomah County, as well Washington’s Clark and San Juan Counties.
Alaska and Utah serve as inspiration, Washington activist says.
So what’s driving the appetite for ranked ballots?
Supporters say the voting method curbs polarization and produces candidates with the broadest possible support among the electorate.
“I think it’s the moment in our nation's history, where people are recognizing that the dysfunction with our democracy has its roots in our voting method,” says Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, a ranked choice voting advocacy organization.
“It's as if there’s a tipping point. I sense it all around.”
Ayrault thinks Alaska’s 2020 decision to adopt statewide ranked-choice general elections has piqued the interest of other jurisdictions in the northwest.
“I personally felt a lot of wind in my sails as an advocate when it passed in Alaska,” she says, also citing Utah as an importance influence.
In Utah, twenty-three cities have opted for ranked ballots as part of a statewide pilot program, something Ayrault believes has convinced many conservative voters that the voting method “isn’t just for liberals”.
“Every time a domino falls, there are fewer barriers,” she says.
That next domino could be Seattle - but not without a fight.
In Seattle – a battle of two reforms.
This November, Seattleites will vote on not one, but two, competing reform efforts.
Because the first reform effort to land on Seattle’s 2022 ballot wasn't ranked choice voting. It was a petition to adopt a voting method called approval voting.
Approval voting, used in Fargo, ND and Saint Louis, MO, lets voters pick as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most votes wins.
Supporters tout its simplicity as one of its main virtues.
“Pick all you like, most votes wins, is as simple as it gets. You don't need to spend tax money on expensive software that can take years to certify or confuse voters with complicated ballots and calculating systems,” says Aaron Hamlin, executive director of The Center for Election Science, a California-based reform organization that funded the signature petition.
Troy Davis agrees. He’s a volunteer leader at Seattle Approves, the local group behind the petition. Davis says Saint Louis used approval voting for its 2020 election only four months after adoption.
He thinks approval voting would prevent vote-splitting in Seattle’s historically crowded city races.
“City races are huge, which means vote-splitting is endemic. There's almost always two candidates with similar platforms and opinions – often three,“ Davis says.
“We carefully chose this change because it delivers the most representation possible under state laws.”
Washington state law restricts voting reform.
Unlike Portland’s charter reform ballot measure, which would eliminate city primaries and concentrate all voting in ranked-choice general elections, Seattle’s two competing reform measures would only change primary elections.
Why only primaries?
Because Washington is a top-two primary state, which means state law actually mandates primaries. Two candidates advance from each primary to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
That’s why Troy Davis thinks Saint Louis is a good model for Seattle. Missouri is not a top-two primary state, but like Seattle, Saint Louis sends two candidates from the primary to the general election.
“This exact system is in use and working great in Saint Louis,” Davis says.
Seattle City Council is cold on approval voting.
But the Seattle City Council doesn't want to emulate Saint Louis.
When approval voting landed on the ballot, the council expedited its own competing measure: Ranked choice voting for city primaries.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who sponsored the measure, said he wasn’t convinced of the fundamental need to change elections, but that voters deserved the option of a voting method “more broadly adopted across the United States."
A move that Troy Davis thinks is a disservice to voters.
“The only other time in modern history that City Council added an alternative to an initiative, that alternative had been on the council's agenda for over six months and discussed in many meetings,” he says.
“One can't just slot in any voting method and hope it produces two competitive winners. Or at least, they shouldn't do it in forty-eight hours.”
Portland and Seattle reform measures bring national attention to PNW.
And here we thought Portland was the only city with a nail-biter charter amendment!
In relatively short order, Portland and Seattle have become canaries for potential statewide reform in Oregon and Washington.
If Portland’s charter reform effort passes in November despite growing opposition, it would signal that Oregon’s most populous city is willing to take ranked ballots a step further than most American jurisdictions.
That’s because Portland’s ballot measure not only introduces ranked choice voting for mayor and auditor, but also proposes single transferable vote for multi-seat city council districts, a voting method most commonly used in parliamentary settings. (Expect a Rose City Reform deep dive into this voting method soon).
Meanwhile, the outcome in Seattle – the eighteenth largest city in the nation – could be a big win for either ranked choice voting or approval voting activists. But first, a majority of voters must vote yes on a ballot question asking whether Seattle primary elections should be changed at all.
Then, and only then, the reform measure with the most votes will win.
Could Oregon or Washington be the next RCV state?
Fifty-five U.S. jurisdictions are projected to use ranked choice voting for their next elections. So far, that list only includes two states: Maine and Alaska.
Could Oregon or Washington be next?
Not if Nevada beats us to it.
This November, Nevadans will vote on a ballot measure to adopt open top-five primaries and statewide ranked-choice general elections.
The outcome is uncertain. Flipping a state takes a Herculean effort. To illustrate how high the stakes are, Chicago-based activist Katherine Gehl, co-founder of the Institute of Political Innovation, has poured over one million dollars into Nevada’s reform effort.
For local activists like Lisa Ayrault, statewide ranked choice voting is the ultimate goal. And she’s hopeful that Washington will get there.
“There's a sense that it's inevitable,” she says.
Will Portland and Seattle help pave the way?
We’ll find out in November.
I try my best to write objectively. Readers should know that I served on the Multnomah County Charter Review Committee that voted to refer a ranked choice voting ballot initiative to Multnomah County voters this November.
The Seattle Times: Competing voting reform measure makes Seattle’s November ballot after City Council OKs alternative.
The Seattle Times, Editorial Board: Seattle voters, get ready for mayhem thanks to city council political games.
Sightline Institute: Approval voting is a risky prospect for Seattle.
The Economist: A new ranked choice voting system hampers Sara Palin’s hopes.
The Washington Post: Analysis: New Yorkers used ranked choice voting last month. Did it eliminate spoilers as promised?
CNN: Opinion: It’s time to get rid of party primaries.
The Salt Lake Tribune: Polling shows the public liked ranked choice voting, but Robert Gehrke explains why expanding it might be tough.
Cowboy State Daily: Wyoming Legislature Considering Open Primaries, Ranked Choice Voting Elections.
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Approval voting should be a non-starter. Voting for as many as you want? What an opportunity for mischief.
But RCV is not fair, in my opinion. The appeal of RCV is that eventually, a candidate gets at least a simple majority of votes, and so people don't feel as disenfranchised. The problem I see is that only the votes of the loser candidate gets redistributed. The loser candidates tend to be those with fringe ideas, and they lose for good reason. In my opinion, the public might be well-served if votes from supporters of these candidates be taken out of the system, period. But instead, RCV allows their second choice candidate to receive their vote (if still in the game), etc. But for everyone else, nothing changes. This is not fair, as many people might vote differently if they knew their candidate wasn't winning.
I would propose that EVERYONE be allowed to record two votes. The first vote is for your preferred candidate. The second vote is who you would support IF YOU KNEW THAT YOUR FIRST CHOICE WAS NOT THE WINNER and there was a need for another recalculation round. So for elections where a party is split amongst two or more candidates, you might think twice about voting for the less popular candidate of your party if you KNEW it would harmfully split the party's chances, as in Alaska. So when there is a need for a runoff, the losing candidate will still get removed, but everyone else (except those who supported the leading candidate) would be able to cast their alternate votes if their first choice wasn't the winner, and not just give this special opportunity only to the losing candidate voters.
It's simple. I would cast my vote. If my candidate is winning but there is a need for a runoff, my vote remains the same. But if my candidate is not the leaderboard winner, knowing this I might vote for someone else. If my candidate(s) is out, so am I, because if my candidates can't find enough votes to remain in the game, then both of us are too fringe, and best we stay out. For the rest, the computer recalculates the remaining votes.
Perhaps this should be called Preferred Choice Voting. Or we could just keep it simple and if there is open voting, let the winner take all. But no Ranked Choice, please.