Ranked-choice voting appears poised to be adopted in Seattle as November election results near certification, but city voters won’t feel the effects of the decision for up to five more years.
During that time, officials are expected to update the voting system and advocates of ranked choice say they are setting their sights on a statewide change.
Voters appear to narrowly have decided to change the city’s voting system, with about 51% of voters in support. On election night, the initial returns showed a lead for people who wanted to keep the current process, but that switched about five days in and as more mail-in ballots have been counted the “yes” votes are now about 6,000 votes ahead. The official vote certification will take place Tuesday.
A separate question on the ballot asked city voters whether they supported either approval voting or ranked-choice voting — two alternative ways to vote that allow people to support multiple candidates. They clearly rejected approval voting.
Three-quarters of voters favored ranked choice, a more established form of primary voting used by several states and major cities across the U.S. It allows voters to select multiple candidates but, crucially, requires them to rank the candidates in order of preference.
“Seattle voters are ready for ranked-choice voting! Thank you to all the volunteers, coalition members, leaders, and voters who came together to improve our democracy,” Stephanie Houghton, managing director of FairVote Washington, said in a news release last week.
FairVote Washington, a local branch of a national nonprofit advocating for voting reform and specifically ranked choice, led the campaign in Seattle.
Now, Houghton says it’s focused on statewide change.
“We’re taking this momentum to the Legislature where we can do even more to empower voters with more voice and more choice,” Houghton said.
In ranked-choice voting, each voter’s top choice would be counted, and the candidate with the fewest top rankings would be eliminated. The process then repeats, using voters’ top choices among remaining candidates for each round, until the final two candidates advance to a general election.
FairVote Washington wants to push the state Legislature to adopt ranked choice statewide for presidential primaries.
Alaska and Maine use ranked choice in statewide and federal elections. But FairVote is suggesting Washington only apply the system statewide to presidential primaries, at least initially, which tend to have large fields of candidates, creating a favorable landscape to test the effects of ranked choice.
Ben Chapman, communications director for FairVote Washington, also said it could help voters whose first choice drops out before Election Day, but after ballots are submitted by mail.
“These voters basically [have] their votes thrown out because their candidate [isn’t] in the running anymore. Ranked-choice voting would allow those voters to still be heard,” Chapman said Wednesday.
But despite November wins in Nevada and Portland, and its apparent narrow victory in Seattle, ranked choice is not a universal favorite in Washington, as it appears to have been rejected in San Juan and Clark counties during this month’s election.
And even where favored, implementing such a change is a heavy lift.
The proposition establishing ranked-choice voting sets a deadline of 2027 to implement the system, a year in which the city will have primaries for seven district-based City Council positions.
Before then, election officials need to upgrade vote-counting software and the ballots themselves to accommodate the new system, and must also parse issues like whether to establish a maximum number of candidates which can be ranked on a single ballot.
Once the framework is in place, officials will run a number of tests on the new system and turn their attention to voter education.
“It is possible that we may be able to roll it out before 2027, but until we’re able to dive into the details with the city and state, we won’t know,” King County Elections spokesperson Halei Watkins said.
While King County administers elections, it has to work with the Washington secretary of state on matters of upgrading and certifying the software and the city of Seattle on issues like cost.
At this point, no meetings or details are set with the city or the state to discuss these changes, and won’t be planned until after Tuesday’s certification.
Even once the ball gets rolling, Watkins says election officials will take their time establishing the new system.
“The team here at King County Elections is precise. They are technical experts, and we are not going to want to rush through the [software] certification process,” Watkins said, noting she’s “confident” they’ll meet the 2027 deadline.
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