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Washington weighs significant changes to how (and when) it votes in 2022

Jan 27, 2022, 12:55 PM
Washington voting, ballot initiatives tax repeal...
(MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

Washington is no stranger to creative ways to conduct voting, as one of just a small handful of states that conducts its elections fully by mail. But in 2022, things could get even more interesting if any of three proposals that are on the table get approved.

Two of those three proposals involve legislation currently under consideration by the state Legislature, while the other could come in the form of a Seattle ballot initiative. All three would represent a significant shift in how Washington conducts its elections.

Ranked-choice voting

The first proposal relates to SB 5584, which would allow cities in Washington to implement what’s known as ranked-choice voting (RCV).

The method allows voters to list their favorite candidates in order of preference. On the tabulation side, if any one person garners 50% of the first-place votes, the election is over and that candidate wins. In the event there’s no majority winner, ballots are put through an automated runoff, starting from the candidate who received the fewest first-place votes.

That candidate is then immediately eliminated. After that, all of the people who listed that last-place candidate as their first choice will have their second-choice votes allocated to the remaining candidates. If no candidate has a majority after that, the process repeats again and again, moving from the bottom up until someone gets to 50%.

Proponents claim that RCV helps eliminate negative partisanship in elections, while encouraging candidates to form broad coalitions and appeal to a wider base of voters. RCV has been successfully implemented in several cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, St. Paul, and Santa Fe, among others.

Existing state law prohibits the use of RCV in most counties, excepting those operating under a specific type of charter that allows for broad authority to amend voting and government structure at the local level. Washington has seven counties in total that are allowed to use RCV — King, Clallam, Whatcom, Snohomish, Pierce, San Juan, and Clark counties. With SB 5584, the state’s remaining 32 counties — as well as cities, towns, and districts within those areas — would similarly be allowed to implement ranked-choice voting.

There appears to be early momentum for the bill too, with SB 5584 already getting passed out of the state Senate’s elections committee on a party-line vote. It will next make its way to the Ways & Means committee for further consideration.

Past attempts to use RCV in Washington have been met with mixed results. Pierce County implemented the system for its county-level executive and assessor races in 2008, but between issues with printing ballots, the purchase of new equipment and software, and outreach efforts to explain RCV to voters, costs went through the roof, eventually leading to a full repeal of the system the following year.

In King County, County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay led a push in 2021 for a ballot initiative to allow voters to decide whether to move forward with a plan to implement RCV. That effort stalled out after bumping up against the deadline to make the 2022 ballot.

Approval voting

Approval voting is seen by some as a simpler alternative to ranked-choice voting. In practice, people can cast votes for as many candidates as they want on a single ballot.

Efforts to implement the method are being led by a group known as Seattle Approves, with eyes toward getting it on a city-level ballot initiative in 2022.

The arguments in favor of it are similar to those you’ll hear from the ranked-choice voting camp, claiming that it better represents what people want in any given election, particularly in races where moderate candidates are jockeying for position among opponents with flashier, more extreme messaging.

“Councilmembers can win their primary elections with 25% of the vote, maybe 30%,” Seattle Approves Co-Founder Logan Bower told KTTH’s Jason Rantz Show last December. “They only need a tiny base in the city to get through the primary election.”

“Under approval voting, that just doesn’t cut it anymore,” he added. “When you can get support from multiple constituencies, you might need need 60% approval to clear a primary.”

With signature-gathering efforts having yet to begin in earnest, Seattle Approves has already gathered a sizable war chest. That’s been buoyed by a series of donations from the California-based Center for Election Science, totaling over $165,000. The group will need to collect over 26,000 verified signatures from Seattle voters over a 180-day period in order to make the ballot in 2022.

Even-year elections

With Washington regularly featuring lower voter turnout in odd-year elections, state Rep. Mia Gregerson is looking to fix that once and for all with a proposal to move most of its elections to even years.

Between 2010 and 2021, Washington averaged 43% turnout in odd years, compared to 74% in even years. At the city level, Seattle holds its mayoral and city attorney elections exclusively in odd years, and has seen similarly depressed turnout numbers as a result. In the city’s latest mayoral election, roughly 56% of eligible voters cast ballots, compared to 88% who turned out in 2020. With seven out of nine council seats up for grabs in 2019, district-level turnout ranged between 50% and 59%, while 2018 saw 79% of voters show up to vote.

Gregerson describes her bill — HB 1727 — as a “common sense” fix for that trend.

“We’re just trying to get to a place where elections are costing less and more people are participating,” Gregerson told MyNorthwest. “I think we all believe that a better democracy is when more people turn out, regardless of the outcome.”

HB 1727 would apply to the vast majority of state, county, city, town, and district elections, excepting votes on levies, tax increases, recalls, and special elections to fill unexpired terms for departing members of Congress. It was passed out of the state House’s Governmental & Tribal Relations Committee on Thursday.

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Washington weighs significant changes to how (and when) it votes in 2022