This November, in addition to being asked to pick politicians you think will best represent your interests, you’ll also be asked to pick a way of picking politicians. The ballot will include a question asking first if you agree that the way we voted in Seattle’s city races in the August primary should change. If you agree, you’ll then be asked to pick one of two options: the approval voting method or the ranked-choice voting method.
Backers of both methods agree that our current first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t serve the city very well. Beyond that, they don’t agree on much.
How do they work?
Ranked-choice voting and approval voting allow you to pick multiple candidates on your ballot instead of just one. That is their main advantage over our current primary system of one-vote, one-candidate. The basic ideas behind the new methods are to expand voter choice and give third-party candidates more viability by eliminating the possibility of “vote splitting,” where candidates with similar ideologies divide the electorate and garner a losing share of the vote despite having more support for their ideas overall.
Under approval voting, voters are presented with a list of all the candidates in a primary and are instructed to fill in the bubble for anyone and everyone they would like to see in office. After all the support is tallied up, the candidates with the most bubbles rise to the top. This could, in theory, result in two candidates advancing to the general who received votes from the majority of participating voters (e.g., one with 52 percent approval and another with 55 percent).
With ranked-choice voting, after the votes are in, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their voters’ second-choice votes are applied. Then, the next lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated. If that happens to be the second choice of the voters whose first-choice candidate got knocked out, their third-choice votes would then apply. It sounds complicated, but essentially a voter gets to stay in the process as long as one of their choices remains. It is possible that all of their choices get eliminated, which leads to what is called an “exhausted” ballot.
One of the main advantages of ranked-choice voting, said Lisa Ayrault, executive director of FairVote Washington, is that it preserves voter preference the whole way through. Approval voting, she said, could lead to some so-so candidates getting through.
“With approval voting, a candidate really could win who has no first-choice support — who’s just tolerable,” she said. “But ranked-choice voting does require a candidate to have a broad base of first-choice support because if they don’t, they’ll be eliminated in the first round.”
Logan Bowers — a former District 3 City Council candidate, now the leader of Seattle Approves, the group that got approval voting on the ballot — contends that approval voting tends to select candidates who are widely liked. While there is no mechanism under approval voting to say who you like more, he said that the outcome of the 2021 St. Louis mayoral race, one of the first live-fire exercises of approval voting in the United States, demonstrates that the most popular policies win.
People say that approval voting “elects bland, boring, centrist candidates,” he said, outlining one of the core arguments against it, “except that it made progressive history in St. Louis, not only by electing the first Black woman, but she was an outspoken progressive. [Universal Basic Income], housing as a human right, universal health care: She’s a progressive dream candidate. And that’s because St. Louis is a progressive city.”
Which one’s better?
One of Ayrault’s other arguments against approval voting is that, besides its St. Louis success story, it’s only ever been tested in Fargo, North Dakota.
“The claims they’re making are all based on mathematical modeling and are not based on any actual data,” she said, in a subtle jab at approval voting’s tech bro backing.
Bowers said that approval voting has been successfully used in both Greece and Latvia, so it’s not coming out of nowhere. The Latvian parliament is currently elected via approval voting, and approval voting was used to elect the Greek Parliament from 1864 to 1926, before it switched over to a proportional representation system.
During a presentation to Real Change’s Vendor Organizing Committee, Bowers cited a 2019 analysis by San Francisco State University Professor Jason McDaniel that showed ranked-choice voting reduces voter turnout by 3-5 percent, especially in races with a plethora of candidates. In a testy exchange, Ayrault said that was false. FairVote published a paper criticizing one of McDaniel’s previous studies on ranked-choice voting for failing to account for key contextual factors like the competitiveness of an election. Voters tend to sit out uncompetitive elections and show up for hotly contested ones. In his 2019 paper, McDaniel does admit that there is “no significant” dampening effect of ranked-choice voting on turnout in elections where the victor won by less than 20 percent.
There’s also the matter of cost. Slides presented by Bowers at that meeting showed approval voting as having a $0 implementation cost, while ranked-choice voting would carry a $4 million cost. That, Ayrault said, is because ranked-choice voting was put on the ballot directly by the City Council, which triggered a fiscal analysis. Approval voting, on the other hand, gathered signatures to get on the ballot as an initiative. Seattle Approves’ proposition would absolutely cost money, she said; it’s just that no one has yet calculated how much.
“The reality is that, every place that’s implemented ranked-choice voting, the election administrators’ estimates of costs in every case have been way higher than what actually ends up happening,” she said, pointing out that Maine implemented a ranked-choice voting system for $103,000, coming in at about $1.3 million less than the initial estimate.
Bowers, in an Oct. 10 text message exchange, responded to Ayrault’s comments about cost by saying that the fiscal note “explicitly says those costs are only for printing and handling larger ballots. So that’s a cost unique to [ranked-choice voting].”
He also argued that approval voting would work “out of the box” with Seattle’s current voting software and said that ranked-choice voting would not. The cost of purchasing new software, he said, was not included in the ranked-choice voting proposal’s fiscal note.
“Not only do we have zero costs vs. the [ranked-choice voting] fiscal note, we also don’t have other costs that weren’t covered in the note,” he claimed.
Which is easiest?
Overall, Bowers said, approval voting was the easiest and most effective option for improving our primary voting methods. It helps third-party candidates, he said, because even if they don’t win, they’re able to demonstrate their “true” support, making future candidacies more viable. It’s also easier on voters, he said, presenting them with one bubble per candidate. And lastly, he argued, it gives voters more bang for their buck compared to ranked choice.
“If you’re going to force a stack ranking on people, then you have to convince them not only that they should vote for you, but that they should put you number one. If you don’t get the number one vote, it doesn’t matter if you get eliminated. A lot of people miss this. Your number two votes 90 percent of the time don’t count for shit,” he said.
Ayrault, to put it lightly, disagrees, especially with Bowers’ statistic about suppressed voter turnout under ranked choice; initial studies have shown an increase in places with ranked-choice voting, she said.
“We don’t know if it’s directly attributable to ranked-choice voting, and we don’t know if it’s causing it. That research hasn’t yet demonstrated that. But the link, the correlation is strong,” she said.
She also argued that ranked-choice voting tends to produce more collaborative campaigns, encouraging like-minded candidates to jump in the race and share support while discouraging adversarial, negative campaigning. In New York City council races, she noted, the switch to ranked-choice voting preceded a seismic shift in the council’s gender and racial composition. Women held 14 of 51 council seats before ranked-choice voting was implemented, and the subsequent election saw that number more than double to 31. Many of them were women of color, Ayrault added.
Under approval voting, she said, voting for a single, favored candidate would still be the most powerful way to vote, as it would deny support to anyone who might oust them. Ranking other candidates second wouldn’t carry the same risk for voters.
“I think we just will see more of the same,” she said. “The same kind of candidates running, the same kind of candidates winning, the same negative partisanship operating and voters recognizing that, while the ballot instructions may say that they can vote for as many as they want, if they really care about their first choice, it behooves them to just pick one.”
Bowers said that so-called “bullet voting,” the practice of picking one candidate in an approval voting situation, wasn’t an issue in St. Louis or Fargo. Voters averaged 1.5 picks out of four candidates in those races, he said.
If either of their arguments ignite a passionate feeling in you, or if you’re just the type of ballot completionist who never misses a symbolic resolution or unopposed judge seat, good news: Election day is just around the corner.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Oct. 12-18, 2022 issue.