Passing Ranked Choice Voting Requires a “Yes” Vote on Question 1

By George Cheung

The ballots of Seattle voters will pose a very important question: Do we want to change our democracy? To put it simply: Yes. Of course. Unequivocally. American democracy is falling apart. To save it—at least here at home, which would create a domino effect—we have to vote yes on this first question.

Public trust in our government and institutions has never been lower. And it’s no surprise. Just look at the other Washington, mired in January 6th insurrectionist hearings, bipartisan gridlock, and Russian interference. Things aren’t looking good.

Here in our Washington, though, everyday people have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference to improve and strengthen our democracy. The stakes have never been higher. Right now, the winner-take-all system always leads to voter dissatisfaction writ large. How many times have you been excited about a primary candidate only to be completely deflated with your options during the general election?

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a simple, effective, and proven alternative. It’s the only viable path forward, and it is the logical next step to our democracy’s evolution. But for Seattle to see the benefits of RCV—which voters and endorsers alike clearly favor—then we must also vote yes on the first question that asks for change. RCV will not happen without both yes votes. It’s silly to vote “yes” on 1B, or RCV, and then prevent it from happening in the first place by saying no to the first half of the question. It’s like saying you want to eat cereal but refuse to use a bowl. If we want RCV, we do in fact want to change our democracy.

Ranked-choice voting is a necessary step in the unsexy but critical work of crash-proofing our democracy.

At the end of the day, RCV is a straightforward voting system that would ensure the Pacific Northwest becomes a stronghold against the rapid crumbling of our nation’s democracy. We can be a bulwark against fascism and eroding social cohesion. And as we’ve done with marriage equality, minimum wage, and marijuana legalization, we can lead the country toward a better path.

Ranked-choice voting delivers accurate voter representation even before a necessary, separate-but-connected movement gets to tackling campaign finance issues. There are critics of RCV who suggest lax campaign finance laws are the real issue. But let’s use a parallel analogy for a second: Reducing the risk of dying while operating a vehicle. When drivers’ deaths were at an all-time high, we passed a whole slate of laws, policies, and standards that made driving safer. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t now, to oppose airbags because you think steering wheels need to look the same, or because you think seat belts got it covered.

This includes, as PubliCola’s editorial board rightfully points out, stronger campaign finance laws. But more importantly, it will require many policy changes. To pull American democracy back from the brink of pseudo-fascist authoritarianism is a daunting task that requires every tool in our toolbox. That starts with the choices we have right now: Voting yes on Question 1 to improve our democracy and voting yes on 1b, RCV.

RCV is a necessary step in the unsexy but critical work of crash-proofing our democracy. We know it’s simple because voters themselves have said so in overwhelming majorities. We know that RCV is effective at preventing democratic manipulation because it delivers the actual will of voters, making elected officials truly representative of the votes cast. We know that RCV is proven thanks to the more than 50 jurisdictions where it has reduced polarization and attack ads, allowing third-party candidates to run competitive races.

RCV makes voters feel heard by making every vote count. In crowded races, much like Seattle’s mayoral elections, candidates who advance to the general election often have as little as 32-34 percent of voter support. RCV allows voters to designate a first, second, and third choice for run-off rounds, ensuring that the candidates who advance actually have a majority of votes behind them—not just a plurality of die-hard, uncompromising supporters. This, in turn, improves voter satisfaction and boosts participation. Time and time again, RCV has led to increased voter turnout! And of course it did: When people know their vote matters, they show up.

This is precisely why RCV has the endorsements of every Democratic Party legislative district in Seattle, the King County Democrats, the League of Women Voters, and nearly 30 more grassroots organizations. These organizations include those who represent workers, communities of color, and advocates from all sorts of backgrounds and issue areas. It’s the same ecosystem of partners who advocated for mail-in ballots, democracy vouchers, and campaign finance laws that voters have overwhelmingly supported over the years. I know, because I’ve been working on these solutions to our weakening democracy since they were simply ideas.

I’m proud of the democracy we’ve built here in Seattle. But the work is far from done. Read the news. Our democracy can be better. And we have a moral obligation to make it better.

Democracy only works if we all agree to it. Protecting our local democracy against the ugly patterns to demolish it nationwide and improving our local voting system, too, only happen if we all agree to it. When you’re filling out your ballot: make sure you vote yes to the first question, yes to improving our democracy, if you want your yes on 1B to go into action.

George Cheung is the Director of More Equitable Democracy and the former Program Director for the Joyce Foundation’s Democracy Program and Co-Chair of the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. Cheung was also executive director of the Win/Win Network and founder/executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization.

7 thoughts on “Passing Ranked Choice Voting Requires a “Yes” Vote on Question 1”

  1. This is an excellent piece. Although I support ranked choice voting, paying attention to opponents’ arguments – many in comments here – is often more useful than re-hearing what you think you already know. Opposition to RCV appears to fall roughly into several, often overlapping, camps.

    First, opponents claim RCV is confusing. This argument is out-dated. The evidence is strong that those who have tried RCV find it easy and like it.

    Second, opponents say our current system (winner-take-all plurality voting) works so why change if what we have works? Sure, plurality voting works, but how about improvements? Also no one needs to change how they vote – voting only your favorite candidate (as now) is perfectly acceptable in RCV.

    Third, opponents say RCV is new and experimental. True only under a rather unique definition of “new and experimental.” RCV is not new or untested as even minimal research will show.

    Finally – and perhaps this underlies, albeit unspoken, much RCV opposition – RCV does threaten to disrupt a bit the influence of the dual-party system in the U.S. RCV, especially when combined with open primaries, gives voters more influence in elections and political parties less, so party opposition is understandable.

    In my opinion the question about RCV is not if RCV will ever be widely adopted, it’s when. Fortunately voters this month have a chance to hasten its inevitability.

  2. This editorial by Seattle Times columnist Alex Fryer says it all. We do not need to keep messing with our elections in Seattle.

    Both 1A and 1B are trying to solve some national concerns that do not exist here in Seattle. Both campaigns are funded overwhelmingly by tech bros from out of state. And both think that changing our election system will help elect more of their type of chosen candidates.

    They try to make the case that we can elect more BIPOC candidates; and yet, for a very long time now, Seattle has had healthy representation of BIPOC elected officials, which at one point, were a majority of the City Council. Likewise with female candidates. We’ve had a majority female council most of the years since the Year of the Woman in 1992, which also created a female-majority state House.

    Just vote no on the first question and skip the rest.

  3. Say what? Your premise:It’s the only viable path forward, and it is the logical next step to our democracy’s evolution
    Beg to differ and may it go down to a resounding defeat.

  4. Given that the Washington state voters received their ballots in mid-October, I hope that you published this post near the time of distribution of the ballots, and that this is a repeat posting. It is well-known that many people fill out their ballots as soon as they are received, and mail them in or drop them in the ballot boxes at that time. The information offered in this posting should have been presented in early October-I hope it was. I think that we in Washington state must start thinking of the voting process beginning when the ballots are sent out to the voters.

  5. Nope. Elections in Seattle aren’t broken. They are transparent, easy(ish) to administer, and most importantly, while voters don’t always love the outcome, they accept them as legitimate and move on about their lives. That is gold in 2022. This guest piece does little justice to the complicated bottoms up instant runoff approach that is the Seattle RCV system. Had there been even a few more weeks to research/reflect what makes sense in Seattle given our top two primary, we might have a better option in the ballot. Why the rush?

    1. I think we need Federal laws regarding voting. Rules on mail in ballots, early voting, polling hours and polling stations. Both the Right and the Left are cooking up bullshit ways to erode democracy with stupid voting laws that tilt the field. Ranked voting is just that, Rank. One person. one vote should be the law of the land.

      1. You’re entitled not to like RCV, but it really is one person, one vote. Think of it as a series of runoff votes all in one package. (That’s why it is also called “instant runoff voting”). If your favorite candidate is eliminated, then and only then does your second choice count, in the next round. Your single vote transfers to that candidate, since your first choice is out. At least with this, the candidates who survive will be the ones with the most overall support, who survived all the simulated rounds of runoff elections.

        With the current system, the candidates who go on to the general can have quite a small amount of support, with the majority’s vote split among a number of similar candidates.

        Also, there’s nothing unusually complicated about the RCV method proposed here. It’s the usual way it’s done, the only difference being that we’d stop when it gets down to the top two candidates, for the top two primary.

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