Approval Voting/Ranked Choice Voting (Propositions 1A and 1B): PubliCola picks “No” and Proposition 1B

The ballot measure to decide whether Seattle should change its voting system is worded, confusingly, as a two-part question. The first question is yes-or-no: Should the city adopt either of two potential new voting systems for primary elections, ranked-choice or approval voting? The second is multiple choice: Regardless of how you voted on the first question, which of the two systems would you prefer? We’re endorsing a “No” vote on the first question and a vote for ranked-choice voting on the second.

PubliCola Picks graphicProponents of approval voting and ranked-choice voting have spent weeks engaged in highly technical debates about which alternative voting system gives people the maximum say in who ends up on the general-election ballot. A ranked-choice primary would offer voters the the chance to rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference, with the final winners determined by knocking out the lowest-ranking candidate in successive “rounds,” redistributing votes to people’s second, third, and fourth choices until only two candidates remain. Approval voting allows people to vote for as few or as many candidates as they want, with the two candidates who receive the most votes overall moving forward to the general election.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say their system gives voters more of a voice in the process because even if their top-ranked candidate doesn’t make it through, their votes for the candidates they rank lower will still “count” toward the final outcome. Supporters of approval voting say their system better represents people’s preferences, because they can vote for as many candidates as they want, including candidates they would not have picked in a traditional, one-vote system. Both say their system would be simple to implement—ranked-choice voting because it’s already being used in jurisdictions across the country, and approval voting because it wouldn’t require a new type of ballot, only new ballot instructions telling voters they can pick as many candidates as they want. Ranked choice voting advocates say their plan is more democratic, because it empowers people to express nuanced preferences, and approval voting advocates say their plan eliminates candidates on the political fringes to elect the candidate who appeals to the maximum number of voters.

But let’s pull back a bit and ask: What problem are these voting systems trying to solve? If the answer is “too few people are running for city council,” the two most recent city elections would like to have a word; the last five races for open seats drew a minimum of seven candidates and as many as 15. Moreover, many of those who made it past the primary (in 2019: Tammy Morales in District 2 and Shaun Scott in District 4, and in 2021, Lorena González for mayor and Nikkita Oliver for Position 8) were progressive candidates of color.

Both campaigns claim adopting their system will reduce the influence of money in local elections by lifting the pressure to vote for the best-financed candidate. But Seattle’s money problem is that independent groups can spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates and ballot measures, something no voting system can directly address.

If the answer is “too few people are voting in local races,” it’s hard to see how complicating the ballot—requiring voters to educate themselves thoroughly on a dozen or more candidates in order to rank them or decide how many of them to vote for—will achieve that goal. The more work involved in voting, whether it’s ranking candidates on a scale of one through 10 or going to an in-person voting booth—the fewer people will vote.

Both campaigns claim their new voting systems will ensure that “better” candidates will win—or at least candidates that are more representative of the electorate’s true preferences. But that’s hardly a guarantee. The candidates who make it through local primary elections are determined by a host of messy factors, including who decides to run, what issues are top of mind for voters, and which candidates have financial support from outside interest groups, which enjoy outsized power in Seattle’s local elections. Both campaigns claim adopting their system will reduce the influence of money in local elections by lifting the pressure to vote for the best-financed candidate. But Seattle’s money problem is that independent groups can spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates and ballot measures, something no voting system can directly address. Notably, both campaigns are funded primarily by six-figure donations from organizations outside Seattle.

Based on their appeals to voters, the real argument for both of these voting systems is that people’s votes will count more when they’re run through an algorithm that tabulates it differently, even though the outcome will always be that the two most popular candidates move forward. This boils down, for either system, to a contention that allowing voters to choose more candidates makes voting more “fair.” (Neither RCV nor Approval Voting supporters have claimed their system would have altered the outcome of recent council primary elections, in which two candidates generally emerge from a field of a dozen or more.) The strongest case for either system, then, is that they make voters feel heard. Unfortunately, the problems with Seattle’s electoral system, most notably the immense influx of outside money from unaccountable independent expenditure campaigns, can’t be fixed by making people feel included. Algorithms can’t fix democracy—or turn 20-point defeats into victories.

This two-part ballot measure also allows voters to choose an alternative voting system, regardless of whether they support our current top-two primary. On this question, we urge readers to vote for Proposition 1B, ranked-choice voting. If we are going to get a new voting system for primary elections, we would prefer that system be ranked-choice voting, both because ranked-choice systems have been tested in many jurisdictions and because we’re open to the idea that, in the future, ranked-choice voting could give a worthy candidate a needed boost in a close three-way race.

Supporters of approval voting say it would lead to more broadly popular, or centrist, elected officials. Historically, Seattle has needed no help electing mushy moderates (PubliCola’s editorial board is old enough to remember the days of Margaret Pageler, Jim Compton, and Jean Godden), so we don’t need a voting system that pushes candidates further to the middle.

Overall, though, we’d prefer to stick with our current top-two system, and advocate for reforms that will actually help even the electoral playing field by reducing the influence of dark money (and the incendiary advertising it pays for) in our local elections.

PubliCola picks “No” On City of Seattle Propositions 1A and 1B Part 1, and IB on Part 2.

PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

16 thoughts on “Approval Voting/Ranked Choice Voting (Propositions 1A and 1B): PubliCola picks “No” and Proposition 1B”

  1. > The ballot measure to decide whether Seattle should change its voting system is worded, confusingly, as a two-part question.

    It had to be presented in this manner to be consistent with the law.

    >But let’s pull back a bit and ask: What problem are these voting systems trying to solve? If the answer is “too few people are running for city council,” the two most recent city elections would like to have a word; the last five races for open seats drew a minimum of seven candidates and as many as 15.

    That isn’t the problem new voting systems are trying to solve.

    > Both campaigns claim adopting their system will reduce the influence of money in local elections by lifting the pressure to vote for the best-financed candidate. But Seattle’s money problem is that independent groups can spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates and ballot measures, something no voting system can directly address.

    That’s true, that’s not a problem with the voting system. What is likely to be the case, however, is that at least with RCV it will become less advantageous to engage in negative campaigning, as you always want to be the voters’ second choice if you aren’t going to be their first choice.

    > If the answer is “too few people are voting in local races,” it’s hard to see how complicating the ballot—requiring voters to educate themselves thoroughly on a dozen or more candidates in order to rank them or decide how many of them to vote for—will achieve that goal.

    Funnily enough, that’s not the problem either system is trying to solve either! Maybe you are just confused?

    > The more work involved in voting, whether it’s ranking candidates on a scale of one through 10 or going to an in-person voting booth—the fewer people will vote.

    This is “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. How many people do you know who, when they go to the ice cream shop and want chocolate, but they don’t have chocolate, would be confused by having to get their second choice, strawberry, instead. Come on now!

    > Based on their appeals to voters, the real argument for both of these voting systems is that people’s votes will count more when they’re run through an algorithm that tabulates it differently, even though the outcome will always be that the two most popular candidates move forward. This boils down, for either system, to a contention that allowing voters to choose more candidates makes voting more “fair.”

    No, that’s not true. The point of ranked choice, a.k.a. “Instant Runoff Voting”, is to simulate multiple rounds of runoffs without having to go to the trouble of running multiple rounds of votes. I can’t speak to the point of Approval voting as I think it is a bad idea especially for a top two primary where the same group might put both candidates forward to the general election.

    > (Neither RCV nor Approval Voting supporters have claimed their system would have altered the outcome of recent council primary elections, in which two candidates generally emerge from a field of a dozen or more.)

    And that would be ridiculous anyway, as nobody knows how the voters would have behaved if the voting system had been different.

    > The strongest case for either system, then, is that they make voters feel heard.

    No, that is not the strongest case, it’s just the strongest case you apparently can imagine. The strongest case, in my view, is that the winning candidate(s) will have the support of as many voters as possible, and not just of the largest plurality, which might be a small minority.

    > Unfortunately, the problems with Seattle’s electoral system, most notably the immense influx of outside money from unaccountable independent expenditure campaigns, can’t be fixed by making people feel included. Algorithms can’t fix democracy—or turn 20-point defeats into victories.

    True, neither system fixes campaign finance as an issue. I don’t know why you’re harping on that because I don’t think anyone is claiming that it does. And algorithms might not be able to fix democracy single handed, but we already have an algorithm (“first past the post” plurality voting) and it is terrible. We should be able to make incremental improvements.

  2. The problem they are trying to solve is fairly simple. It is why it was introduced in the first place. We have had elections where extreme candidates get nominated, and we don’t elect the consensus candidate. Approval voting fixes this, which is why it was proposed. But then the city council decided to push forward with ranked-choice (instant-runoff) even though it wouldn’t help.

    For example, consider the City Attorney race. Ranked Choice would have made no difference. However, approval voting likely would. It is quite possible that a lot of people on either end of the political spectrum were OK with Holmes. Holmes would then go on to easily beat either candidate.

    The same is true with city council race position 9. Thomas was the consensus candidate. But Nelson and Oliver advanced.

    In both of these cases, the right wing candidate ended up winning. In both of these cases there was a very good left wing candidate that simply wasn’t left enough for The Stranger editorial board*. That is the other aspect of this. The Stranger and The Seattle Times endorsed the far right and far left candidate, preventing the consensus candidate from advancing.

    It is essentially this — a scenario so common they made a diagram of it and it is shown on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_electoral_systems#/media/File:IRVCopeland.png. With the current system — or ranked-choice instant-runoff — the centrist candidate doesn’t advance, even though that candidate would beat any of the other candidates in a head-to-head matchup.

    That is the problem this is trying to solve. But in typical Seattle fashion, it got muddled with actions taken by the City Council and side issues.

    * This blog endorsed Thomas if I remember right. If the current editorial board of The Stranger was a little more sensible this wouldn’t be such a big problem, and we wouldn’t keep endorsing right-wing candidates.

    1. I couldn’t disagree with you more. Under RCV I firmly believe Oliver would have been elected over Thomas and Nelson both.

      1. You’re obviously wrong about this. Oliver had 40.2% and Nelson had 39.5%. Even if all the remaining votes were consolidated around Thomas, she wouldn’t have made the general with ranked choice voting.

        This comment seems to indicate that you don’t understand how RCV actually works. And from I’ve seen, *most* RCV supporters don’t really understand how it works, or at least don’t understand the implications of how it works. It’s clearly too complicated.

        Approval voting not only does a better job at picking the consensus choice(s), but is dramatically simpler and cheaper, with no need for ballot changes or voting machine upgrades.

      2. @clay, you can`t really project RCV results like that. RCV changes how people think about voting and their vote. From what I have heard directly from members of the community, more people would have voted for Oliver if they believed she had a chance of winning. She was the consensus candidate. All RCV would have done is emboldened people to vote their hearts, which is all the difference that would have been needed.

      3. @A Joy — I’m afraid you don’t understand how RCV works. To be fair, there are different types of RCV, so maybe that is where the confusion lies. In this case, it is “instant-runoff”, but it *only* applies to the primary. That means after everyone votes, they look at the person with the least amount of votes. That person is eliminated, and those votes go to their second choice. That continues until there are only three candidates left. At that point, the top two candidates advance.

        Thus in a three person race, you get exactly the same results as you do now. It doesn’t matter what your second choice is — only the first.

        In this particular race, the results would have been exactly the same. Remember, Oliver advanced. Nelson advanced. That wouldn’t have changed, as the second choice would have been meaningless. It is always meaningless in a three-person race to get into a general election.

        It is only if you have four or more candidates that things would change. That wasn’t the case in this race, and it isn’t the case in most races.

      4. “From what I have heard directly from members of the community, more people would have voted for Oliver if they believed she had a chance of winning. She was the consensus candidate. All RCV would have done is emboldened people to vote their hearts, which is all the difference that would have been needed.”

        Oliver did win! Nikkita Oliver advanced to the general election.

        So again, I don’t see how things would have changed. Maybe you meant Thomas, because you wrote “she” (Oliver goes by “they”). Anyway, as I hopefully made clear from the previous post, there is no reason to think that RCV would have changed anything, as an RCV ballot is essentially the same as the existing ballot in a three-person race.

        You can play it out in your head if you want. Every voter picks their favorite candidate, then their second favorite, etc. Then the worst candidate gets eliminated. In this case, there were a tiny number of people who voted for a fourth candidate. These votes go for one of the top three. This still isn’t enough to change anything. Then you have three candidates. The last one is eliminated and the top two advance. There is no point in assigning the votes from that third person (in this case Thomas) because the race is over. In the primary — the only place this will be used — RCV is meaningless once you get to three candidates.

  3. You miss the point of RCV. It allows a voter to vote for a candidate that they might otherwise fear would not get on the ballot with the assurance that if they do not their vote will not be “wasted”. A moderate, middle of the road Democrat or two, maybe a radical Republican is all we get with the current top two system. RCV allows for an opportunity to change that by letting people vote their heart regardless. Approval voting is not quite as good, as it basically allows people multiple votes and still favors mediocrity. It is better than what we currently have though.

    RCV in the end is the only way real change can occur within our current political system. Left or right, it matters little. It is the path away from the world of Idiocracy we all see barreling towards us.

    1. @A Joy, If you are speaking of the City Attorneys race that produced a “radical republican,” RCV would not have fixed that. With only three incumbents in the race, Holmes would have been dropped in the primary for getting the fewest votes. Sure, fringe candidates may hang around longer during the counting process, but RCV won’t fundamentally fix the math problem of them having less votes. And it shouldn’t – the point is to forward the candidate with most support of the people.

      1. I wasn’t referring to any one specific race with that part of my comment. Several come to mind.

        And I too am for the candidate with the most support of the people winning. I believe we do not have that at present under our current system. Instead we have people voting for the candidate closest to their politics that they think will win. RCV gives voters the opportunity to vote their heart first and their compromise second or third, and I feel there are a number of races that would have resulted in different candidates/winners under such a system.

    2. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of the “Seattle Way”. Seattle is a city of economic innovation and capitalist success, from Boeing to Microsoft to whatever is next. The City has never really has functioned very well as a democracy. Most of the problems people care about are generated by economic problems that City Council couldn’t tackle if they wanted to (and they don’t). The history of ranked choice voting in the USA is it becomes popular in times of economic upheaval and goes away a generation after it solves nothing.

      Ranked voting doesn’t mean Amazon still isn’t calling the shots for the most part.

    3. > You miss the point of RCV. It allows a voter to vote for a candidate that they might otherwise fear would not get on the ballot with the assurance that if they do not their vote will not be “wasted”

      no it doesn’t. for instance, palin was recently a spoiler in the RCV election in alaska. if even a small fraction of her voters had strategically voted for begich (the other republican) instead of her, then begich would have won instead of the democrat. they wasted their votes on palin.

      begich was preferred to peltola by 5%, and to palin by 23%. he was the actual consensus choice, but RCV elected a relatively extreme candidate, given alaska politics.

      approval voting is a far simpler and better option here.

    4. “You miss the point of RCV. It allows a voter to vote for a candidate that they might otherwise fear would not get on the ballot with the assurance that if they do not their vote will not be “wasted”.”

      No one is ignoring anything. RVC has its value. With instant-runoff, you avoid having your vote “wasted”, but only if your first choice comes in fourth or worse. Your second choice is ignored in most cases. Once it gets down to three candidates, it doesn’t matter what your second choice is (even if everyone has the same second choice).

      “A moderate, middle of the road Democrat or two, maybe a radical Republican is all we get with the current top two system.”

      That is absurd. In the cases I mentioned up above, the far left candidate advanced. Are you saying that NKT and Nikkita Oliver aren’t far enough left? Seriously?

      The problem is, they were too far left. They advanced, only to be beaten by the right-wing candidate. In both cases, the moderately progressive candidate didn’t advance. Under instant-runoff they won’t advance. Either way, we run the risk of nominating far left candidates, only to have them beat by right wing candidates.

      “RCV allows for an opportunity to change that by letting people vote their heart regardless.”

      Yes, they “vote their heart”, but most of the time, it doesn’t change anything. You have more candidates, but none of them actually win the race. Take that council race again. Assume that you have a dozen people who are farther left than Nikkita Oliver. They get to run. So what? You still end up with two candidates (one far left and one moderate right) and then the city will vote for the right-wing candidate, because they don’t like the far left one. Nothing changes.

  4. The question of what problem we are trying to solve is not clear me! And yes, RCV is “tested,” but man, what a recount nightmare! We should not be tinkering with voting systems to secure any ideological outcome, but to have most transparent and credible process. For that, the best option is obvious.

    1. even if you vote against changing the system, you should still choose approval voting IN CASE the measure passes—which it probably will. that way you at least get the simpler (and better) option.

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