by Ashley Archibald
The King County Council curtailed an effort July 12 to put a new form of voting before the electorate in November, citing a desire for more time to work through the details before presenting the option to voters.
The original legislation — sponsored by Councilmember Girmay Zahilay — would have given voters the option to approve ranked-choice voting (RCV) for certain nonpartisan County positions including the executive, assessor, director of elections, prosecuting attorney, and County Council.
Had the legislation gone forward and been approved by voters, the new system wouldn’t have taken effect until the Council hammered out the details and voted on a series of protocols, staff said at the July 7 Committee of the Whole. But after initially advancing the matter to its July 13 Council meeting, the Council decided to put the legislation on hold.
“We will postpone our ranked choice voting legislation & continue working on it for next year’s ballot,” Zahilay posted on Twitter July 12. “Most of my colleagues shared our interest but understandably wanted more time to work through the details without the fast deadlines associated w/ this November’s ballot.”
Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is not a new concept, but it has received a lot of media attention in recent months after the New York City mayoral contest threw it into the national spotlight. But even before New Yorkers cast their first ranked ballots in the June 22 primary race — which took multiple rounds of tabulation to declare Eric Adams the winner of the Democratic nomination — local governments in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oakland, and the state of Maine, among others, used the system in electoral contests.
In Washington, a national organization called FairVote that champions RCV created a network of state and local branches that have been working in the past few years to push legislation like that which the King County Council considered, seeking to establish a foothold.
Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, who represents the 37th District in Washington’s House of Representatives, introduced a bill to allow local jurisdictions to adopt RCV in the 2021 legislative session with 26 co-sponsors, though it stalled in committee. King County was free to put the matter to voters without that law because it is a charter county.
Proponents say that RCV opens the door to nontraditional candidates by allowing voters to cast their ballot “with their head and their heart,” in the words of education campaign program director for Rank the Vote NYC Sean Dugar. And the process will ease the concern that a voter might throw the election to a candidate they dislike. It could save the system money, too, by eliminating runoff contests and could influence campaigns to focus on issues rather than attacks on opponents.
As RCV remains a possibility for future voting in King County and potentially other parts of Washington, it’s a good time to ask: What is RCV? How does it work? And does it deliver on its promises?
No Playing Favorites
RCV is a system where voters rank candidates in the order they’d like to see them elected. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and every voter who chose that candidate as their first choice has their second-choice vote counted instead.
The process continues, eliminating the last place candidate and redistributing those votes, until one candidate accrues 50% of the vote. That’s different from the more common system, sometimes known as “winner-take-all,” where the person with the most votes wins even if they receive a relatively small amount of the overall vote. Depending on the electoral system, RCV can also preclude a primary or runoff election.
RCV accounts for more of the electorate’s voting preferences, said Mark Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
“I would argue that ranked-choice voting satisfies more people than does plurality voting,” Smith said. “Because with plurality voting you can get a situation where … the first-place finisher has a plurality of first-place votes, but everybody else hates them. Nevertheless, they take office.”
By taking into account people’s second- and third-place choices — or up to their fifth-place choice, in the case of the NYC mayoral election — the ultimate winner aggregates 50% or more of the vote even if they weren’t voters’ favorites. That means that candidates with extremely engaged bases — but no major crossover support — are less likely to eke out a win.
The result tends to be a consensus candidate of sorts — one who was able to appeal on some level to more voters, even if they didn’t rank them first.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The NYC mayoral primary race is one of the most high-profile examples of RCV in recent memory, in part because of its novelty and the national media attention it garnered as outlets attempted to force a narrative out of the still-uncertified results. But RCV is actually old hat, with a history in the United States stretching back nearly 100 years.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, cities began adopting RCV in the 1920s and 1930s, but the system fell by the wayside a few decades later because of the relative difficulty in vote-counting through the rounds compared to winner-take-all elections which could be easily counted on machines.
Modern voting technology reduces the difficulty, although human error remains. One early result in the recent New York Mayoral race published by the New York City Board of Elections inadvertently included 135,000 test ballots in its count.
In the past two decades, RCV has seen a resurgence, especially in smaller cities. As of 2020, 18 cities and four states used RCV in some of their elections.
Some of the recent momentum came from disillusionment after the extremely close 2000 presidential election, said Greg Dennis, who campaigned with Voter Choice Massachusetts, an unsuccessful effort in November 2020 to get RCV approved in Massachusetts statewide. In that election, he said, many blamed Ralph Nader’s third-party run for the eventual election of former President George W. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore.
“These concerns around polarization and the way people feel divided and disconnected from government and feel like they don’t always like the choices on the ballot … to some extent that has always been around,” Dennis said. But, he added, polling shows those feelings are increasing.
Proponents of RCV in Massachusetts are now redirecting their energies toward reform at the local level.
“In the same way states are often called ‘laboratories for democracy’ for federal legislation, cities and towns are kind of their own little laboratories for democracy before taking things to the statewide level,” Dennis said.
FairVote Washington (FVW) puts its focus on the local level, too, with 12 volunteer-led groups across the state, mostly based in counties where they educate the local electorate on RCV and push for local voting reform.
FVW Director Lisa Ayrault remembers her conversion to what she sees as the logic of RCV more than three decades ago. She was teaching a seventh-grade math class focused on the calculations that undergird elections when she and her students came to what she now sees as an obvious conclusion: The normal practice of requiring voters to choose only one candidate had a lot of downsides.
“There’s more than one good way to vote in public elections, but there’s also one tool in the toolbox that is arguably the worst one of all for large public elections and that’s the one we’re choosing now,” Ayrault said.
Ayrault believes that RCV opens the door to more choice for an electorate that is used to settling for the least offensive candidate rather than the one they most want in office. She says it puts an end to the establishment mantra that new candidates must “wait their turn” or that their presence in the race might split the vote if there is someone “too similar” to them already.
Proponents are quick to say that RCV is one reform, not a panacea for all voting-related issues experienced in the United States. There are also possible downsides. RCV is not a guarantee that any given person’s voice will be factored into the end result. Sometimes, people’s ranked candidates will all be eliminated— what officials call “ballot exhaustion.”
The ballot exhaustion phenomenon means that the victor may not actually get the majority of votes cast, just the majority of ballots counted in the final round. A 2014 analysis published in the journal Electoral Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal, looked at four elections that used RCV — the 2010 Oakland, California mayoral election; the 2008 Pierce County executive election; the 2011 San Francisco mayoral election; and the 2010 San Leandro, California mayoral election.
Of the four races examined, San Leandro saw the fewest exhausted ballots, with 9.6% of those cast. In San Francisco, however, 16 people qualified for the ballot, but voters could rank only three. In that race, 27.1% of valid, first-round ballots didn’t make it through to the final round.
Toilet Paper Shopping
RCV can be initially puzzling to the unfamiliar, but proponents say the process of using it is natural and intuitive. People rank things all the time, whether they’re aware of it or not, said Dugar, with Rank the Vote NYC, an organization that spearheaded outreach efforts in advance of the mayoral election.
Dugar likened the process to toilet paper shopping in the early days of the pandemic, an analogy he admits might not thrill politicians but gets his point across.
“There was a shortage of toilet paper, and my favorite brand of toilet paper may not have been on the shelf. So I had to go to my second choice, or third choice, or push comes to shove, I might have had to go with my last choice — but it’s still a choice — of single ply,” Dugar said. “That’s what ranked choice voting is.”
Over the past year, Dugar’s team put on more than 600 trainings to introduce New Yorkers to the concept of RCV and how it works. Education was critical in advance of the June 22 election because although proponents say that ranking is intuitive, it’s also a brand-new ballot and a brand-new system to many.
Voter education is a big part of FVW’s strategy, too, Ayrault said. The organization hosts online events, organizes phone banking, and sends volunteers to large public gatherings like county fairs to meet people and explain the system.
“This is what we will be doing — all hands on deck for voter education,” Ayrault said. “Every way shape and form that we can get the word out — in person events, social media, on down the list. It’ll be a massive voter education effort. There’s no question.”
A Longer Timeline
The King County Council chose to delay taking up RCV for now given the tight timeline to get the issue on the November ballot. Zahilay expressed hope that the matter would go before voters in 2022. But even if it had gone before voters this year and they had approved it, it is unlikely that voters would have seen a ranked-choice option on their ballot any time soon.
King County Elections (KCE) will need between three and five years to implement the new system, Director Julie Wise told the King County Council on July 7. That’s mostly so that Clear Ballot, the vendor that provides the vote tabulation software, can build, test, and get state and federal certifications for the new technology.
In the meantime, KCE could continue with voter education and figuring out how to design the new ballots since only some nonpartisan elections would be eligible under the new system.
The Council will use the time to get more familiar with the concept of RCV before pushing it to the voters, Zahilay said in an email to the Emerald.
“For me it was the fact that almost all my colleagues understandably felt rushed and wanted more time,” Zahilay said.
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.
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