Should Seattle Use Ranked-Choice Voting?

Seattle's crowded 2021 primary once again raises questions about whether the current system is long for the city.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 3, 2021

Today is Primary Day in Seattle, which means procrastinators across the city are sweating out their choices for mayor, two city council positions, and King County executive, among other things. It’s a lot to decide on—too much, one might argue. Seattle’s mayoral race alone has more than a dozen candidates, some of whom have vexingly similar platforms. Yet only one of their tiny ovals can get pen-swirled in on each ballot (write-ins are also allowed).

Of course, there’s another way. Earlier this summer, New York City became the latest major U.S. city to use ranked-choice voting, a system that operates like it sounds: Instead of selecting one candidate for each race, voters rank their preferences. If a candidate doesn’t earn more than 50 percent of first-place votes, the vote goes to a second round. First round votes for the last place candidate now go to those voters’ second-place selections during the second round. The process repeats itself until a candidate captures a majority of votes.

New York joined the likes of San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Santa Fe—not to mention the entire state of Maine, countries overseas, and the Academy Awards—in adopting ranked-choice, which advocates like FairVote Washington say promotes a more civil, less polarized political process. Politicians must appeal to those beyond their base to attract, say, third-place votes, and they may find it expedient to boost rather than attack certain opponents. For some voters, the process unfolds more like decisions they make in their day-to-day: Rule out the restaurant nobody in the group thread wants to try, then work back toward some kind of consensus favorite. Maybe not everyone’s thrilled, but hopefully nobody’s all passive aggressive about it, either.

Though others have run a ranked-choice primary without incident, the Big Apple's was kind of a cluster. Vote tabulation took more than two weeks after the New York City Board of Elections initially released inaccurate results. And the eventual winner, Eric Adams, wasn’t so sure the process was as representative as the city claimed it would be. Locally, the controversy may have evoked memories of Pierce County’s short-lived run with ranked choice more than a decade ago. Voters approved it in 2006, avoiding a pick-a-party primary, the Tacoma News Tribune reports, only to reverse course by 2009 after confusion and questions about an assessor-treasurer's election (intrigue!) accompanied the system’s rollout.

King County council member Girmay Zahilay

King County council member Girmay Zahilay hopes voters can weigh in on ranked-choice in 2022.

King County council member Girmay Zahilay is confident the state’s election technology has “dramatically improved” since its failed rollout, and he believes New York’s errors were unrelated to the method of voting—just the “historic-level mistake” of counting fake ballots. Earlier this summer, Zahilay sponsored a local ordinance that would have allowed voters to opt into a ranked-choice system for nonpartisan county elections (read: not the city elections within) this November. A council vote to pose that question to voters on November’s ballot has been postponed a year as members vet the logistics and their constituents’ views on the matter. “Most people were very intrigued by the concept,” Zahilay says of his colleagues. “And they feel a sense that this is going to be the next step in our evolution in the electoral process. But they felt rushed.”

The King County legislation came on the heels of a statewide bill backed by Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a Democrat who represents a swath of the city in the state’s House of Representatives, that would have made local elections eligible for ranked-choice. Seattle City Council publicly supported the option proposed in the bill, which died in committee after facing resistance from Republican secretary of state Kim Wyman for its lack of specifics on implementing the system, not the voting method itself. And a majority of Seattle’s leading mayoral candidates support ranked-choice voting in some form, according to FairVote Washington.

Washington secretary of state Kim Wyman had some qualms with a statewide ranked-choice bill.

For Zahilay, who grew up in South Seattle, his home city’s crowded field epitomizes the impossible choices that the current one-choice system demands. “There are so many candidates who very much overlap with their policy platforms. Their supporters, however, are incentivized not to collaborate with the opponents, but to compete with them,” he says. “That creates a more toxic environment where people who have tiny, small, miniscule differences are incentivized to fight with each other, as opposed to, if we had ranked-choice voting, somebody who is 98% aligned with another candidate could say, ‘Hey, vote me first, vote them second, vote this person third.’” In New York, for instance, Andrew Yang and eventual runner-up Kathryn Garcia became allies late in the contest.

One downside to ranked-choice voting, as Ashley Archibald has written for the South Seattle Emerald, is “ballot exhaustion”—the amount of voters whose choices don’t ultimately matter into the final round. More than 10 percent of ballots didn’t factor into Pierce County’s ultimate selection of an executive in 2008.

Another common gripe is that introducing a multipronged new voting system can exacerbate racial and ethnic biases in voting, and limit turnout. But a study of ranked-choice voters in four California jurisdictions “found little evidence of race/ethnic differences in reported understanding.” The research did conclude that older voters struggled more with the new system, but overall, voters adjusted well to the method, with a strong association between education level and reported understanding of the voting system. “There was slightly less reported high levels of understanding in [ranked-choice voting] communities, but they were really high across the board,” says Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University and a co-author of the study.

In their write-up, the researchers called for more voter education campaigns to limit potential voting errors. Seattle would likely have some time to implement such programming. Zahilay’s county-level reform, even if it gets the okay from voters in 2022, will take several years to implement, he says. And in this city, a Process always looms.

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