Primary day for voters in our state is Aug. 2. We will be voting in newly redesigned legislative districts and Congressional districts, thanks to redistricting. Washington voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1983 that put redistricting into the hands of a five-member commission with two Republicans, two Democrats and a neutral chair chosen by those four. Sounds fair. But, it actually creates a design that is based on incumbent protection — both Democrats and Republicans — rather than a neutral redrawing of districts based on population growth and decline.
This year, the redistricting map has been challenged on the basis of discrimination against Hispanic voters. Another lawsuit charges discrimination in favor of Hispanic voters. Neither lawsuit will be upheld. However, this leads to a question about how best to elect our representatives. No matter how badly or fairly each district is designed, we are still saddled with the “first-past-the-post” system in which the candidate with the most votes wins. That leaves a large segment of voters without a voice or representation in the legislature.
This system prevails in every general election — city, county, port, legislature and governor. With the top-two primary system, in some races, voters who support Republicans or Democrats don’t even have a candidate to vote for in the general election. This happened to Democrats in the general election in 2016 for state treasurer, a race in which two Republicans got the most votes in the primary and advanced to the general election even though the combined votes for Democratic candidates was larger than the combined Republican support for that office.
Another flaw in our system is that it depends on a yes/no decision, forcing a voter to choose one candidate. It doesn’t have to be this way. In Alaska, the top four candidates from the primary proceed to the general election. In the general election, voters rank their choices, starting with their first choice and working down. A candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote is elected, but if none of the four candidates meets this threshold, the last place candidate is eliminated and their supporters’ second choice selections are allocated to the remaining candidates on the ballot. This vote redistribution process continues until one candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the votes cast.
With this system, you are able to rank your choices. You are not forced to just settle on one candidate. Voters in San Juan and Clark counties have a chance to put this process into law this year. In both counties, charter amendments to utilize ranked-choice voting are on the November ballot. This past legislative session, the Washington state legislature punted on this approach to enable all localities to utilize ranked-choice voting. The bill got stuck in the House and never came up for a vote. The biggest hurdle: the status quo as enjoyed by incumbents who benefit from the current voting system and don’t want to change it.
Ranked-choice voting is a necessary but not sufficient step to realizing a true democracy. That definitive step would be to combine ranked-choice voting with proportional representation. Proportional representation is the voting system most utilized in democratic elections around the world. With proportional representation, the partisan and racial biases of redistricting would be largely neutralized. Let’s consider Washington: If we had 33 legislative districts and each district elected three representatives, with ranked-choice voting and proportional representation, a candidate would have to receive more than 25 percent of the total vote to be elected. If no one, or only one or two candidates, received more than 25 percent of the vote, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the second choices of the voters for that candidate are allocated to the remaining candidates. This continues until three candidates have received more than 25 percent of the vote, meaning that there is no room for another candidate to meet that threshold.
With this system, districts in rural eastern Washington would most likely be represented by two Republicans and one Democrat. Suburban Seattle districts would most likely be represented by two Democrats and one Republican. In some districts, a Socialist candidate might get elected, and in other districts a Libertarian. But in all districts, the likelihood of representation for all voters in the legislature is greatly increased, enabling a much more representative democracy than that which we have now.
If the legislature passes a ranked-choice voting bill for localities, Seattle could embark on such a voting design. With five districts electing three councilpeople each, we would move from monolithic representation to representation that more effectively represents the many interests and residents of our city. Each elected representative would have to garner more than 25 percent of the vote, allowing a multitude of voices and much more compelling representation in our city. This builds our democracy, making sure that policy decisions are dictated not by the Downtown Seattle Association or Amazon but by decision-makers who represent all of us.
John Burbank is the founder and retired executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle.
Read more of the Jun 22-28, 2022 issue.