by Jude Ahmed
This November, after organizers and the City Council alike have made it possible, Seattle voters could elect to make huge changes in our voting system.
There are three ballot items you must pay attention to: King County Charter Amendment 1, and Seattle Propositions 1B and 1A. Charter Amendment 1 is straightforward: If voters approve the initiative, it will move elections from odd to even years for 12 key positions: Executive, Assessor, Elections Director, and nine County Council seats. If passed, these electoral races would then be in front of voters when there is higher and more diverse voter turnout.
City of Seattle Propositions 1B and 1A are competing propositions to institute new voting systems — ranked-choice voting (RCV) for Proposition 1B or approval voting for 1A. Both take aim at the way our primary elections happen, acknowledging the frustration of voters who feel caught between voting for the lesser of two evils. That very conundrum is my personal theory to explain King County’s low voter turnout this past August (a dismal 39% of our 1.4 million registered voters participated in the most influential election of this year).
In my role as an organizer for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, I hear firsthand why our Black and Brown communities are dissatisfied with the entire voting system — which, if history is any indicator, was built to exclude them in the first place.
Think about it: Voters in the primary are often older and whiter compared with voters who turn out in the general election. Just look at the most recent data: Voters 65 and older made up about a third of the primary electorate. Over half of voters who participated in the primary are older than 55. The sheer proportion of this group — and its ability and motivation to consistently turn out in every single election — means that every single election, this is the group vetting our top two candidates for us every year.
So why are we young people surprised when we get to the general election and end up choosing between Adam Smith and Doug Basler? (By the way, 10-year incumbent and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith is a Bellevue resident representing the most ethnically diverse congressional district in Washington, which has also absorbed the most refugees from U.S.- torn countries.)
To me, this effect of whiter and older candidates dominating the primary is a chilling reminder of times in U.S. history in which the political power of African Americans was diluted through the very creation of primaries, then the “white primary,” in 1930s Texas. The Texas State Legislature passed legislation that meant African American voters could not participate in “private” party-run primary elections. Thus, white voters “vetted” the candidates that African American voters were able to choose from in the general election. While our current primary system is not as explicit as this legislation, it was designed to produce a similar outcome.
Voters of color have been burned. Years and years of voting and political “participation” have been rewarded with infrastructure that tore down communities, and predatory developers taking homes only to hike up rents. How does our vote matter when we are the victims of both gun violence and the additional “public safety” measures and criminal systems instituted in response? How is voting going to bring justice to the communities that have endured harm from the politicians they entrusted to represent and value them? Barriers were put up to systematically exclude our Black and Brown communities from political power, even while posturing to value our votes. There are very real reasons to refuse to vote between the “lesser of two evils” when you are simply tired of putting in that work only to see zero positive change in your community. I hear this every single week.
But I also make sure to remind everyone I meet out in the field that voting is a continuously refined and scrutinized process. The power and importance of our vote is evidenced by the near-constant battles over the ballot box, visible in Seattle most recently in acts of ballot drop box intimidation, as well as across the nation. However, it’s often made visible only when the media covers a barrage of legislation and policy competing to evolve a 200-year-old electoral system to suit the needs of the established political leadership (read: wealthy, influential white people).
We must design an electoral system that works for voters. Most importantly, one that works for those communities who are relentlessly excluded from political participation. You may have missed your chance to vote in the primary, but this very change is on the ballot for the first time this November.
Proposition 1B would have Seattle voters elect city officials using ranked-choice voting. With ranked-choice voting, the primary election would look different. You would be able to rank as many candidates as you want, while indicating your first choice, second choice, and so on. Winners would always have the majority support, and voters would get to fill out their ballots in a way that reflects their nuance in preference between candidates. If your favorite can’t win, your vote goes to your next choice to help them win. This voting system has been used across the U.S., and the movement is backed by a coalition of Communities of Color across Washington State. Just to name a few: the BIPOC Executive Directors Coalition, Puget Sound Sage, The Washington Bus, Washington CAN, and more.
Ranked-choice voting was put on the ballot by the Seattle City Council so it would appear beside another initiative, spearheaded by tech workers and billionaires, called Proposition 1A. This would move Seattle elections to use approval voting, where you simply give one vote to every candidate you support or “approve” of without differentiating your favorite candidates from your least favorite. It has no support from Black and Brown community organizations who have historically fought for improved electoral representation, because of a lack of evidence that it would improve representation of our communities who need it most.
My plea to you, Seattle, is that you show up for your democracy, but most importantly for your neighbors, who deserve an opportunity to be represented by members of their community.
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