Councilmember Andrew Lewis authored the bill to put ranked choice voting on the ballot in November 2022. (Photo via Seattle City Council Flickr)

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted in favor of putting ranked choice voting on the ballot this November. The vote, which went 7-2, comes on the heels of the news that an approval voting measure titled Initiative 134 has obtained enough signatures to appear before voters this fall as well. As a consequence, Seattle voters will be asked to weigh in on two potential new voting systems. The measure that receives more votes will supersede the other and become law, so long as a majority of votes favor changing to an alternative voting system.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis (District 7 – Downtown) sponsored the bill to put ranked choice voting on the ballot this fall and argued that voters deserve to be able to choose between the two voting systems, rather than have approval voting foisted upon them without an alternative.

Approval voting faces criticism from progressive leaders

In approval voting, voters select all of the candidates they approve of for an office. Voters can select as many candidates to approve as they wish for a seat, and the candidate who earns the most approval votes wins the election. In the case of a primary, as it would be in Seattle, the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election.

Proponents argue that approval voting is a simple, easy to understand system that allows for voters to support candidates that they might not otherwise deem as viable. Critics, on the other hand, point to the fact that there is no opportunity to distinguish between approval votes, preventing voters from indicating which they candidates they actually prefer. Additionally, some critics fear that the approval voting process could favor more established candidates and drown out minority voices by pushing results into the center. They point to moneyed backers of approval voting, which include “crypto king” billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, to argue this is an astroturfed campaign pushed on Seattle from the outside and intended to benefit the class interest of elites.

“As proposed in Seattle, approval voting could be a voting rights disaster,” said Kamau Chege, Executive Director of the Washington Community Alliance, in a press release. “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. 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.”

George Cheung, Director of More Equitable Democracy, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s known that more candidates of color run for office and win under RCV,” Cheung said in a statement. “If we want a vibrant, diverse democracy in Seattle, RCV should be part of the conversation.”

The case for and against ranked choice voting

In ranked choice voting (RCV), voters are asked to rank candidates by order of preference. Votes are then tallied in a series of rounds in which votes are awarded to candidates based on how many first, second, third, and so on, ranking votes they receive. The lowest scoring candidates are eliminated each round with all remaining unspoiled votes transferred to the next highest ranked candidates until a final winner is declared. In the case of a primary, as it would be in Seattle, the top two highest ranked vote-getters would advance to the general election.

Proponents of ranked choice voting say that it provides for more options than a traditional one-vote, one-choice system, which may allow for voters to take a chance on candidates they feel truly reflect their values, but who they see as a riskier choice in terms of electability. Those RCV proponents include Mauricio Ayon, Campaign Coordinator of the Washington CAN (Community Action Network) and Jazmine Smith, Political Manager of the Washington Bus and also a member of The Urbanist Elections Committee.

“Ranked-choice voting is backed by a real, multi-racial coalition of advocates and community leaders who are working to build a democracy that works for all of us and educate voters about what RCV means for them,” Smith said in a statement. “We heard from Seattleites who signed the petition for approval voting thinking it was ‘like RCV.’ Adding RCV to the November ballot would give voters the opportunity to compare options side-by-side and choose the method that they want — not a misunderstanding or compromise. Seattle voters, young voters, and voters of color deserve real solutions for a representative democracy and RCV can deliver that!”

Critics, however, argue that the more complicated nature of ranked choice voting could hamper voter turnout and that the results it produces may not be much different from the traditional one-vote system, since the candidate who collects the most first rank votes is often declared the winner in the end.

Nelson and Juarez dissent in Council deliberations

In comments ahead of the vote, Councilmember Lewis argued recent reforms have already improved Seattle elections for the better.

“I don’t know if there is a fundamental need to change the nature of our elections in Seattle. With districts and democracy vouchers, we have competitive elections where young people and people of color are viable candidates. I myself as the youngest councilmember can personally attest to that,” he said.

But Lewis also expressed the need to let the voters decide when it comes to selecting between the two voting systems — or whether to change the current system at all. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (At-Large), echoed this opinion. “There’s nothing more democratic than giving voters a choice on something so consequential,” she said.

Councilmember Sara Nelson (At-Large), one of the two dissenters, framed her decision to vote against Lewis’s bill in terms of “taking a stance for governance,” and registered concern that the Council voting to put ranked choice voting on the ballot would overstep its authority and unfairly influence the election.

Lewis disagreed with Nelson’s critique, offering up as an example the fact that ranked choice voting has been under consideration by King County and had gone through an “extensive parallel process.” If Seattle were to adopt approval voting, he argued, the city would risk falling out of step with King County government should it later adopt ranked choice voting.

Lewis also paid reference to the fact that ranked choice voting has been “more broadly adopted across the United States” with over 30 jurisdictions already using some form of the system. By contrast, approval voting is a newer, less tested concept. It has only been adopted by two municipalities: Fargo, North Dakota and Saint Louis, Missouri. Washington CAN’s Ayon made a similar argument.

“Places like New York, Minnesota, Utah, Maine, and California demonstrate that ranked-choice voting’s benefits are real and they work for working people,” Ayon said in a statement. “Seattle voters deserve a real choice between a proven and tested system like RCV and the experimental approval voting policy which has never withstood legal scrutiny.”

Finally, to defend the choice of using a City Council ordinance to get ranked choice voting on the ballot, Lewis brought up the example of former Councilmember Tim Burgess’s choice to introduce a bill that gave Seattle voters the option to vote through special election on a four property tax levy to raise funding for pre-school, an option that arose as an alternative to ballot initiative that aimed to improve, but not expand, the existing preschool system and did not come with a source of funding attached. The Burgess sponsored preschool levy alternative went on to pass with 67% of the vote.

The second nay vote came from Council President Debra Juarez (District 5 – North Seattle) who couched her disagreement in the viewpoint that ranked choice voting would do little to remedy the prevalence of former legislative aides holding elected office in Seattle. While not wanting to “disparage her colleagues,” many of whom had served as legislative aides, she said she felt the more critical issue at hand was opening up the pipeline of prospective candidates to people with more diverse professional and personal backgrounds. Juarez did not, however, offer an opinion on how to make progress toward that goal.

While Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4 – Northeast Seattle) voted in favor of putting ranked choice voting on the ballot, he also qualified his decision by stating that he did not think “either [voting system] option will solve the problems facing Seattle today.” According to Pedersen, at the top of that list were public safety and homelessness — neither of which would be impacted by a change in voting system, in his perspective.

Looking ahead

In the coming months, Seattle voters will have time to consider the strengths and weaknesses of approval and ranked choice voting before deciding whether to vote in favor of either, or neither, of the two systems. If voters decide in favor of approval voting, according to the language of the ballot initiative, it would need to be implemented no later than the 2025 election. For ranked choice voting, the council bill provides a slightly longer implementation timeline, with the 2027 election named. Lewis said this extension was intended to create space for Seattle to engage in work alongside King County, should both city and county voters eventually decide in favor of a ranked choice voting system.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.