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RCV and approval voting go head-to-head in Seattle

approval voting in Seattle

Seattle is home to an unusual fight over voting systems.

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Advocates for changes to the voting system agree that plurality balloting needs to be replaced with something better. But there’s disagreement on which of the “better” systems is best.

And usually the backers of different proposals, whether intentionally or not, stay out of each other’s way, working in different cities and states. But there’s an odd situation developing in Seattle, where supporters of ranked-choice voting are hoping to compete with a ballot measure to institute approval voting in America’s 18th most populous city.


In June, Seattle Approves, a nonprofit organization pushing for approval voting, secured enough petition signatures to put the proposal on the ballot in November.

"Seattle’s leaders must represent everyone," said Sarah Ward, co-chair of Seattle Approves. "Initiative 134 will make Seattle’s elections as representative as possible, so that its leaders represent the entire electorate. This initiative puts voters first.”

But Washington for Equitable Representation, a coalition of organizations pushing for RCV across the state, including for federal elections, wants the Seattle City Council to offer a “parallel” option in November. A member of the city council has taken the first step to making that happen by introducing a bill to put RCV on the November ballot.

“As proposed in Seattle, approval voting could be a voting rights disaster. Affluent voters already wield disproportionate power in our politics, and under approval voting, those affluent voters would have the power to pick the two candidates for the general election, presenting a false choice to the more diverse, representative voters that show up in November. That’s not democracy,” said Kamau Chege, executive director of the Washington Community Alliance and a member of WER. “Seattle voters deserve ranked-choice voting, which would level the playing field and guarantee everyone the freedom to pick their first-choice and backup-choices.”

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Logan Bowers, another co-chair of Seattle Approves, is concerned that the decision-making process is being hidden from the public.

“The whole process is secret because the ethics laws prevent them from having public deliberations. For example, if the deliberations were public, they could consult voting experts on the construction of the alternative,” Bowers said. “But we know the council is deep underwater with the general public and if history is any guide, it’s pretty common for elected officials to help themselves rather than help the voters when drawing districts or writing voter law.”

Under the approval voting system, voters may mark as many names as they wish on a ballot with the person who receives the most support winning the election. In Seattle’s case, approval voting would be used for primaries and the two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election regardless of party.

The system’s backers say approval voting is superior to RCV because the ballot is simpler to use and to implement.

In an RCV system (also known as instant runoff voting), voters rank candidates by order of preference. If no one receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that person’s support is redistributed to voters’ second choice. The process continues until someone has a majority of support. RCV’s supporters say it guarantees the winner has received backing from the majority of voters, results in more representative elections and encourages less divisive campaigning because candidates need to appeal beyond their base.

In traditional plurality or “first past the post” voting, the candidate with the most votes wins even if they do not get a majority of support.

Approval voting is currently used for municipal elections in Fargo, N.D., and St. Louis. Ranked-choice voting is used statewide in Maine and Alaska, in New York City and San Francisco, and about 50 other cities.

FairVote, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting and is allied with (but independent from) the Washington coalition, is focused on an “affirmative case” for RCV.

"Just this year, RCV legislation has been debated in nearly half the states, while RCV is being used by Democrats and Republicans in important contests in states like Alaska, Maine, and Virginia. There will also be at least sevenRCV measures on the ballot in cities and counties across the country in November,” said Will Mantell, press secretary for FairVote. “There's no shift in strategy towards approval voting or effort to undo its implementation in St. Louis and Fargo, though it may face challenges in winning and sustaining its wins.”

According to Mantell, the push for RCV in the Emerald City isn’t a reaction to the approval voting initiative.

“In the case of Seattle, there is a deep, long-standing, and diverse coalition supporting RCV, and we aren't surprised that they have city council allies who want to see RCV presented as an option to voters," he said.

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