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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What would ranked-choice look like in Washington? The Legislature’s hoping to find out

Margie Dennis, left, and elections supervisor Kris Forgey-Haynie sort through ballots at the Spokane County Elections Office in November.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers are considering whether they should allow voters to select multiple candidates in order of preference in some local elections.

A Senate bill would allow counties, cities, towns, school districts, fire districts and port districts to adopt ranked-choice voting for general elections and primary elections if certain conditions are met. Jurisdictions would have the choice to adopt ranked-choice voting and have the discretion on which races would use ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting allows a voter to rank their candidates in preferential order. All first choice votes are counted, and a winner is declared if they have over 50% of the vote. If no one reaches the 50% threshold in the first round, the person with the fewest number of votes is eliminated. Anyone who voted for that candidate has their votes count toward their next ranked candidate. That elimination process repeats until a candidate reaches the 50% threshold.

Prime sponsor Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, said allowing localities to adopt ranked-choice voting allows voters to make choices that best represent them.

“It enables people to vote based on their values instead of having to settle for the lesser of what they consider to be two evils,” Trudeau said at a Senate State Government and Elections hearing on Jan. 19.

Jurisdictions that use ranked-choice could get grants from the Washington Secretary of State’s office to adopt the system.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said ranked-choice proposals have been floated over the past few years. She and other county auditors have been engaged in conversations with advocates about different proposals and their viability, she said.

“This is a discussion that has evolved over the last several years,” Dalton told The Spokesman-Review. “We’re working through this concept step-by-step.”

Supporters of the proposal said the bill allows voters to have more options to choose from when electing leaders. Shae Dolan, high school senior from Tacoma and chair of the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, said youth voter turnout is so low not because of political apathy, but because candidates don’t accurately represent them.

“By increasing the choices on the ballot, preferential elections promote the viability of third party candidates, combat feelings of futility, improve representation and ensure young voters like me feel heard,” Dolan said at the January 19 hearing.

Washington already has a top-two primary system, which allows the top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party, to advance to the general election. Proponents of that system, like proponents of ranked-choice, say the top-two system can lead to increased voter turnout and more competitive races.

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said ranked-choice voting and the state’s top-two primary system both can theoretically lead to more moderate candidates. Ranked-choice, however, broadens the choices available to voters, Clayton said.

Travis Ridout, professor of government and public policy at WSU, said the theory that both systems can lead to more moderate candidates, while plausible, needs more studies.

“I’m not sure we yet have definitive evidence on the degree of moderation that’s promoted,” Ridout said. “Though it’s very, very plausible.”

In terms of the top-two system, a primary election that advances two members of the same party, Ridout said, “doesn’t offer people of the other party much choice in that general election.”

Ridout said that voters in the current single choice system have to vote for the candidate they think has the best chance of winning – which may not necessarily be their true preference. Under ranked-choice, they have more freedom to choose who they actually like.

“You don’t have to be worried about the viability of a candidate in order to vote for a candidate,” Ridout said. “If you want to vote for that Llbertarian, go ahead and vote for the Libertarian – whether that Libertarian’s viable or not.”

Opponents of the measure say ranked-choice voting can lead to voter confusion and delays in results. George Forman, a computer scientist from Port Orchard, said different vote tabulating algorithms could lead to different consensus results and the state shouldn’t run that risk.

“It would be better to have simple voting procedures everyone understands and not require running and trusting a computer algorithm to determine the winner,” Forman said.

Dalton said ranked-choice voting can’t be implemented right now. Outstanding issues like ballot design, rules relating to ballot counting and voter education need time to be fleshed out with auditors and advocates.

“I would say we’re not there yet,” Dalton said. “There’s still a lot of individual steps and impacts that need to be explored, need to be worked and need to be thought all the way through.”

Dalton said the discussions should continue to take place allowing time so auditors can be ready to implement a thorough product.

“All county auditors in Washington want to ensure that if we’re tasked with implementing something, that we are able to put that function into production successfully,” Dalton said. “We do not want to fail in anything we do, and we do not want to fail because a function has been mandated before the processes are available and ready.”

The bill was passed out of committee on Jan. 26. It has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means committee where it is awaiting a hearing.