This Month in Seattle Tech

The Seattle Tech Workers and Crypto Billionaire Behind Approval Voting

Is voting for more than one candidate the iteration our elections need?

By Benjamin Cassidy June 30, 2022

Before he can swing 2024, Sam Bankman-Fried is helping bankroll a potential change to Seattle elections.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that tech types are into election science. “You get pretty nerdy folks that are excited about nonpartisan voting reform,” says Logan Bowers.

The former Microsoft and Amazon engineer helped found Seattle Approves, the “approval voting” advocacy group that includes several Seattle tech vets and the backing of a fund bankrolled by “crypto king” Sam Bankman-Fried.

Earlier this month, Seattle Approves turned in enough signatures to qualify Initiative 134 for November’s ballot. If I-134 passes this fall, voters could bubble-in more than one candidate in future city primaries. The idea is to elect more representative candidates, prevent vote-splitting, and more accurately reflect support for every person running, the group says.

The news arrived as local politicians weighed more changes to our local elections. On Tuesday, the King County Council advanced a proposal to move countywide elections to even-numbered years in an effort to boost turnout. (Voters will decide on its fate this November.) The council is also considering a ranked-choice voting proposal from last year but has pushed back a vote on it.

Some feel ranking preferences for candidates is a better alternative to our current system than approval voting. Jazmine Smith of The Washington Bus, Kamau Chege of Washington Community Alliance, and Colin Cole of More Equitable Democracy penned a piece for The Urbanist criticizing approval voting back in March: Seattle Approves, they said, “would like us to stop asking voters who they want representing them and instead ask voters to approve the candidates who they would tolerate representing them…. Their small tweak to our system could suppress the voting power of communities of color.”

Bowers disagrees. “The strength of approval voting is that your candidate cannot simply rely on their base to win.” Voters, he says, don’t sort into camps with approval voting in place; everyone’s vote is up for grabs. “Candidates have intense incentives to reach out to smaller groups that are often ignored or underrepresented and gain their approval by offering to address the issues that they have.”

He points to St. Louis, which followed Fargo’s lead and passed approval voting in 2020. The next year, the city elected its first Black female mayor, Tishaura Jones, though election monitors have debated if that breakthrough would have happened even without a tweak to the voting system.

Regardless, all agree that the current system needs to change—Bowers likes to point to its last-place finish in a measure called Voter Satisfaction Efficiency.

It’s the type of geeky data crunching you’d expect from someone who’s done the “grand tour” of Seattle tech. The former software engineer bounced between Microsoft, Expedia, Zillow, and Amazon; he also founded a shopping startup, Quorus, that Amazon acquired. The pot shop he co-owns today is called, naturally, Hashtag Cannabis.

But it was a failed run for city council in 2019 that motivated Bowers to get on board with approval voting. He’d heard from voters that the current election system wasn’t representing their intentions well. Around the same time, a childhood friend with his own tech background, Troy Davis, introduced him to the concept of selecting more than one candidate on the ballot.

For a year before they launched the campaign, they spoke with voters and conducted polls, seeing if approval voting was actually something they wanted. In tech terms, it was a test of “product-market fit”: “Before you go and build the product in the technology world, you have to make sure you're building a product that customers want.”

Others have since joined Seattle Approves from places like Google and Microsoft. Along the way, the group reached out to the Center for Election Science and Bankman-Fried’s fund, which might just tilt the 2024 election

We’ll see if it helps tip ours come November.

Bits and bytes. Microsoft makes a union promise and eliminates non-competes. Amazon gets a new retail CEO. Local startups weigh recession fears. And Atomo gets a funding jolt.

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