What's Tony Thinking

Voting on How We Vote


This November Seattle voters will not only vote on candidates for office, we will vote on how we vote.

Two measures to change how we vote will be on the ballot. One is called “approval voting,” which allows you to vote for several candidates of whom you approve. The other choice is “ranked choice voting,” which allows voters to indicate their first, second, third (and so on) choices among a slate of candidates. For more detailed explanations of both Wikipedia does a pretty good job.

“Ranked Choice Voting” is the better known of the two, in part because it just got high-profile attention in the election to fill Alaska’s one seat in the House. RCV voting meant Mary Peltola, not Sarah Palin, was the winner. Alaska and Maine are the only two states to have RCV at this point, but it is being considered in a number of other places, including, in Washington, Seattle, Clark and San Juan Counties.

If you are just starting to learn about these options in order to make an informed choice in November, check out the recent “Roundtable” by writers at Seattle’s Post Alley site.

Five of Post-Alley’s regulars, all with wide political experience, shared their thoughts. I found myself in agreement with Joel Connelly, longtime political writer for the Post-Intelligencer. Here’s a bit of what Joel had to say

“Under the current system, summer primaries remain low-interest, low-turnout, activist-dominated affairs. Seattle voters are often left with a less than satisfying November ballot, witness the 2021 race for Seattle City Attorney.  New talent is hard to attract, and competent moderates who would bring talents to public office are discouraged from running in a left-dominated city. Statewide, Washington has been denied viable alternatives, witness the 2020 gubernatorial election of Loren Culp versus Jay Inslee.

“So why not open the windows of democracy to fresh breezes?  Give voters more choices. As seen in Alaska, ranked-choice voting can undercut the politics of polarization. Identity and trust – Peltola is a respected figure in Alaska – trumped ideology.  The winner courted a wide spectrum of the electorate, not just a following of the like-minded. We need that in more places.” (emphasis added).

That — undercutting polarization and incentivizing candidates to broaden their appeal — seems to me a worthy goal. I need to think, read and listen more to fully decide if such goals are likely to be what the result if either of these measures are approved. Are there “unintended consequences” that might come with either Approval or RCV systems?

It is not as if we haven’t been trying all sorts of things to “reform” or improve our elections.

I’m old enough to remember when you actually went to a designated polling place to vote. In Washington state we got rid of that sometime in the 00’s in favor of by-mail voting only. After a while we even provided the stamp for your ballot. The rationale was to make voting easier, more convenient. More people would vote, we were told. My understanding is that the move to all mail hasn’t resulted in a substantially better turnout.

Then in Seattle we changed our Council elections so that seven of the the nine seats represent districts, instead of all 9 being open seats elected by the entire city. This too was supposed to make things better, more representative, with Council members who are more responsive. The unintended consequence was to empower candidates whose appeal was strong but narrow. Excite the base. Go ideological.

Then we tried “election vouchers,” to get money out of politics. How has that worked? Not so well as promised. And the system seems cumbersome.

I am open to RCV, but cautiously so. I do sometimes wonder if we assume that whatever problems we perceive in our voting systems are the fault of those systems — and not we the voters. Maybe we voters have a part to play, or responsibility for, making the thing work or not work?

When I spoke with Lisa Ayrault, a retired math teacher, who heads up the group advocating for RCV here, Fair Vote Washington, she said something that jumped out at me. “RCV will mean that voters have more choices.” That could be the selling point that tips voters for RCV. We live in a time and society where we have come to expect choices, lots of them.

I can imagine people advocating for RCV over the current system arguing, “What? I get only one choice? What kind of antiquated system is that? I want more choices. I deserve more choices!” With Approval or RCV, we would be less likely to be voting for the one of two that we found least objectionable, or voting against someone more than for anyone.

RCV (or Approval Voting) would give us more choices. Maybe they would be better choices. I sure hope so. But maybe what we would end up with is only that, more choices. More choices sounds good, but at some point too many choices can overwhelm people. (That’s me standing paralyzed in front of 1,000 varieties of breakfast cereal on aisle 8.)

At this stage, any changes we make should be asked to measure up to one criteria: will this make our democracy more, and not less, trusted?



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