The King County Council’s Committee of the Whole voted six-three July 7 to send a ranked-choice ordinance to a council vote, which looked promising for Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay and Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ ordinance. The Committee of the Whole is not the official King County Council but is composed of the same nine lawmakers. With the pressure of a July 20 deadline to get it on the November ballot, the council postponed a further vote, instead planning for voters to approve or deny a ranked-choice system for county positions in 2022.
Ranked-choice voting skips the primary process and allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference: first choice, second choice and so on. If no candidate wins more than 50% of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and their votes go to each voter’s second-choice candidate. This process repeats until one candidate has more than half of the votes.
“Winner-takes-all voting is at the heart of many of our political problems,” Zahilay said at the meeting.
Lisa Ayrault, who is the executive director of FairVote Washington, said the “ranked-choice voting hype” has been steadily growing since it was first introduced in San Francisco nearly two decades ago. Since then, Ayrault says about half of states use the system in one way or another. Alaska and Maine even allow ranked-choice voting for statewide and federal elections as of the end of last year.
This Washington legislative session, 26 Democrats and one Republican cosponsored a bill to give localities the option to implement ranked-choice voting in some, all or none of their local elections. The bill did not make it through the entire process in the short session, but is poised for further consideration when the legislature reconvenes.
“We’re seeing a lot of reasons in our national politics to suggest that voters are not very happy with gridlock, dysfunction, lack of choice, hyper partisanship, low voter turnout — I’ve just seen so many problems with how our democracy is functioning,” Ayrault said. “We can trace that dysfunction back to the way we vote.”
Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that this system is a solution to the “spoiler effect,” when two candidates of similar ideologies split a voter base, allowing an opponent to win even if their ideas are less popular overall. According to Zahilay, it also encourages candidates to campaign to a broader swath of the electorate and discourages “toxic infighting.”
Not everyone on the council is on board.
In the July 7 meeting, Councilmember Reagan Dunn expressed concern over eliminating a primary for races that he said, in practice, political parties have a role in, even if they are theoretically nonpartisan.
Dunn, who has represented his district since 2005, provided a “history lesson” for the council when the state conducted pick-a-party primaries. In effect, Dunn said this caused parties to hold nominating conventions to determine a candidate.
“There was this one guy named Reagan Dunn who barely lost his nominating convention — it was like 51-49 or something — and then the federal judge threw [the pick-a-party primary system] out, and allowed for the Top 2 system to come through,” Dunn said. “You just gotta be mindful that parties will do what they can to control the outcomes no matter what we wanna do at the King County Council.”
Councilmembers Dunn, Rod Dembowski and Kathy Lambert all voted no, not recommending the ordinance be passed out of committee to another council vote. Zahilay and Kohl-Welles represent a newer faction of this council, which has historically had long-serving members winning their seats each election.
Washington has its own history of ranked-choice voting. Pierce County briefly adopted the vote-counting system in 2008. Voters repealed ranked-choice voting in 2009 when courts restored Top 2 Primaries. In a 2010 “Report on Ranked Choice Voting,” the King County Citizens’ Elections Oversight Committee wrote, “The onetime costs and ongoing RCV costs of the 2008 Pierce County general election doubled the normal cost of a general election for a total of $3.3 million.”
There is no official cost estimate to implement the system in King County right now, but a staff report estimates $500,000 for a voter education campaign, over $400,000 for additional staffing annually, $175,000 for short-term employees per election and additional, unspecified costs for multiple-page ballots and updating the tabulation system, which is predicted to be the “major capital cost.”
Over an hour of the Committee of the Whole’s two-and-a-half hour meeting was dedicated to the ordinance. Mere minutes of the council meeting were spent referring the ordinance back to the Committee of the Whole. It will be at least another year before King County voters decide whether to switch to a ranked-choice voting system.
“What I heard loud and clear was that most of our colleagues are very intrigued by the concept and want to learn more,” Zahilay said at the July 13 meeting. “But don’t want to be artificially bound by the deadlines associated with the November ballot.”
Read more of the July 14-20, 2021 issue.