Lawmakers in Olympia are considering bills to increase voters’ options on how to elect local government. SB 5584 and HB 1156 allow local jurisdictions the option to use ranked choice voting.
Ranked voting, which was devised in the 19th century, has a long tradition in English speaking countries, including the United States. This kind of voting shares a sensibility that Washington voters are used to. Under our current top-two system, second choices of some voters are necessary to produce a majority winner in the second round of voting. Ranked voting folds the primary into the general election by asking voters to rank a first, second and even third choice on a single ballot.
There are various versions of ranked voting. In one instance, it can produce a single winner in an election. It can also be configured for legislative elections to empower minorities through proportional representation. The term “minority” is not necessarily in context of identity politics.
Proportional ranked voting is an election method where voters share representation. Instead of a district electing a single seat – where the winner takes all – imagine a three-seat district where most voters elect three candidates. Local jurisdictions can hold elections with a “modified at-large” arrangement. It’s like voters sharing a pie, where candidates are elected proportionally to their slice of the vote. This kind of voting is constitutionally proven and established in about 100 jurisdictions in the United States.
On a three-seat commission or board, voters could elect two Republicans and one Democrat – or vice versa. There is also space for third party and independent candidates. I believe if you are a taxpayer, and subject to the rules and laws of the land, you deserve effective representation which best reflects your needs and values. With these bills, our Legislature is making progress with this ideal.
In 2018, Washingtonians were empowered by the state Voting Rights Act. Racial and ethnic groups can now break down the walls benefitting political insiders. Like the federal Voting Rights Act, our state version allows an option for proportional representation.
Recently, Yakima County commissioners adamantly rejected proportional ranked choice voting as a voting rights settlement – instead accepting exclusive single-member districts. This is within their right, however, the commissioners then went out of their way to disparage ranked voting within a reactionary press release containing ridiculous claims. I will share the reality.
A 2014 summary ruling in Montes v. City of Yakima, the court found Yakima’s old-fashioned at-large voting system in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The city was then divided into seven exclusive districts, where voters get one vote to elect one seat, once every four years.
With the November 2021 Yakima City Council election, District 2, drawn for Latinos, produced 571 votes. While District 6, drawn for whites, produced 4,666 votes.
This eye-popping disparity is not the result of some paranoid conspiracy theory du jour. Rather, the consequences of exclusive districting are plain-as-day. Gerrymander watchers are familiar with the terms “packing” and “cracking.” The former refers to packing as many voters into a district as possible, resulting in a dilution of voting power.
Proportional ranked choice voting solves gerrymandering because elections are held at-large. Candidates, living anywhere in a jurisdiction, need to cross a threshold for election. For example, in a three-seat race – 25% of the vote produces a winner. Evidence in the Montes ruling proves Latinos can cross the winning threshold. (For an example of how this works, visit fairvote.org and click on the “Ranked Choice Voting” tab.)
In today’s polarized politics, we desperately need to bridge divides. Democrats in rural places, along with urban Republicans can get elected with proportional ranked choice voting.
Specially tailored districts enable the expectations of political elites regarding what kind of candidate should win or lose elections. Instead, let’s provide every voter an equal opportunity to share representation, through the same ranked voting ballots distributed at-large.
Versions of ranked choice voting are spreading through our country. There are unfounded suspicions ranked voting is a left-wing scheme. This is nonsense when considering how Utah County, Utah, embraces it with local elections. This is a conservative area where Donald Trump won with 67% of the vote in 2020.
Ranked choice voting works great where election officials have a can-do attitude.
Olympia needs to not only pass the local option for ranked voting, it must make funds available to county election officials for obtaining expert consultation to get local versions off the ground.
A local option for Ranked Choice Voting works to meet the real needs and values of communities. With shared representation – proportional representation – we give power to voters. SB 5584 and SHB 1156 are about Olympia allowing local communities to decide what works best for them.
Krist Novoselić is a Northwest musician, best known as the bassist for Nirvana. He is a longtime advocate of civic participation. He divides his time between Wahkiakum County in southwest Washington and a wheat farm in Cheney.