Seattle voters to decide on whether to adopt approval voting or ranked-choice voting for city primary elections

In November, Seattle voters will vote on Proposition 1A and 1B to decide whether to adopt an approval voting system or a ranked-choice voting system for municipal primary elections. Currently, Seattle uses a plurality voting system for primary elections for the mayor, city attorney, and city council, in which the candidate receiving the most votes advances to the general election. This system is sometimes referred to as first-past-the-post or winner-take-all and is the most common voting system used in the United States.

The group Seattle Approves collected enough valid signatures for Initiative 134, which would establish an approval voting system for Seattle primary elections. The Seattle City Council could pass the initiative as an ordinance, reject it, send it to voters, or send it to voters along with an alternative proposal.

On July 14, the Seattle City Council voted 7-2 to reject Initiative 134 and adopt a ranked-choice voting system instead. Councilmember Andrew Lewis sponsored a resolution to place the ranked-choice voting alternative proposal on the ballot along with Initiative 134’s approval voting proposal. Lewis said, “This discussion has gotten to a point where we run a risk of making a more undemocratic decision by depriving the voters of making that choice [between approval voting and ranked-choice voting]. In essence, there would be a proxy vote where voting ‘No’ on approval voting would be reflecting a ‘Yes’ vote for [ranked-choice voting] anyway.”

Voters will first decide on Question 1, asking whether either of the two proposed voting systems should be adopted. Voters would then decide on Question 2 to choose between Proposition 1A (Initiative 134) for approval voting or Proposition 1B (City Ordinance 126625) for ranked-choice voting. Voters opposed to adopting a new voting system who vote ‘no’ on Question 1 can still vote for their preferred option in Question 2. If the first question is approved by a majority of voters, the option receiving the highest number of votes would be adopted.

Voting for Proposition 1A would implement Initiative 134, which would establish approval voting for Seattle primary elections for mayor, city attorney, and city council. Under the approval voting system, voters would vote for however many candidates they choose. The primary ballot would include instructions stating, “vote for AS MANY as you approve of” for each office. The top two candidates receiving the most votes would advance to the general election.

Logan Bowers, volunteer co-chair of Seattle Approves, said, “If you’ve ever debated between voting for a candidate that you really like and another you like less but has the big money backing to win, you’ve experienced the problem with our existing elections. The money flowing into elections combined with the flaws in our current voting system means our elections aren’t a fair assessment of what voters want. Too often, voters feel compelled to vote strategically based on who they think can win.”

Voting for Proposition 1B would implement the city council’s proposed alternative measure, which would establish ranked-choice voting for Seattle primary elections for mayor, city attorney, and city council. Under the ranked-choice voting system, voters would rank candidates according to their preferences. The candidates with the fewest votes would be eliminated and the voters’ second choice would be counted for the remaining candidates until two candidates remain to advance to the general election. Voters would be able to rank up to five candidates. Ballots would include instructions stating, “Rank candidates in the order of your choice.”

Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, said, “We think it would be an unfortunate choice for Seattle to go in that direction (of approval voting), when ranked-choice voting has such a proven track record of success. Where people tend to have strong preferences about their first choices and care a lot about the outcomes … ranked-choice voting is the best.”