Aberdeen — Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, is co-sponsoring a bill that gives counties, cities, towns and other municipalities an option to use a method of ballot counting called “ranked choice voting.”
Ranked choice voting lets voters rank candidates in order of choice: first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choice votes, they win. In nobody gets more than half in the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate as their “number one” have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until one candidate wins with more than half the votes.
Advocates say it gives candidates a chance even if they aren’t affiliated with a major party.
Blake said he supports the idea of local jurisdictions having a choice in the method they use to select their candidates.
“I don’t dislike the system we have now, personally,” said Blake of the current top-two primary, where the top two candidates in any primary race move forward to the general election ballot regardless of their party affiliation. “But I’m not opposed to local jurisdictions choosing something different.” He added, “I think having that (ranked choice voting) available if a jurisdiction wanted to use it is a good tool to have.”
“Ranked choice voting is about expanding the range of choices in our elections,” said Lisa Ayrault, FairVote Washington chairwoman. “Right now, in our state, we limit ourselves to just two choices in the general election. With (ranked choice voting), there’s no need to do that. More candidates are encouraged to run in ranked choice elections, because they don’t need to worry about being a spoiler, or splitting the vote with other, similar candidates.”
FairVote Washington describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group “for electoral reforms that give voters greater choices and a stronger voice in our elections.” Founded in November 2016, it now includes eight regional chapters across the state.
“There’s a lot to like in this bill,” Ayrault said. It gives cities and towns more choice in how to conduct elections — allowing them, for example, to eliminate primaries, which are currently state-mandated, she said. “The bill doesn’t require anything — it simply offers jurisdictions the option to try ranked choice voting in their local elections, if they so choose.”
Ayrault said it also has the effect of reining in in negative campaigning because “candidates must appeal beyond a narrow base.” She claims the system allows voters to vote for their true favorite with less fear of vote-splitting: “Your vote stays in play even if your first choice can’t win, because you can list your backup choices.”
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said after talking to FairVote representatives he decided not to co-sponsor the bill and calls himself “neutral to slightly negative” on the legislation.
“It’s an interesting idea, but it seems to be one of those political ideas that works better in theory than in practice,” said Walsh.
Walsh said the current use of the top-two primary makes the need for ranked choice voting here not as great as it might be in states with traditional party primaries. He also said the theory that ranked choice voting levels the playing field for independent candidates doesn’t necessarily ring true.
“It tends to, in fact, kind of concentrate outcomes at the extremes of each of the existing parties,” said Walsh.
Senate Bill 5708 and House Bill 1722, sponsored by Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, and Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, respectively, would allow counties, cities, towns, and special districts to opt out of state-mandated primary elections in favor of a general election conducted using ranked choice voting. Alternatively, jurisdictions could choose to hold a ranked choice primary election, with the top five contenders proceeding to the general election.
Ayrault said the state of Maine, along with 11 cities and counties around the country are already using ranked choice voting, and another dozen cities are preparing to implement it in the year ahead. Local option bills similar to the two Washington bills have been passed in Colorado and Utah and are being introduced in Maryland and Wyoming.
The Pierce County experiment
In 2006, voters in Pierce County chose to enact ranked choice voting for all county officials except judges and prosecutors. Walsh noted that in one instance, “two relatively qualified candidates got voted out of the race and an interesting and flamboyant, but inexperienced, candidate ended up winning and trouble followed.”
That candidate was Dale Washam, a “perennial candidate” who ran for and won the Pierce County assessor-treasurer’s office in 2008 under the ranked choice voting system. His activities while in office led to countywide criticism, sparking a recall effort. He failed in a re-election bid in 2012.
Many in Pierce County blamed ranked choice voting for his election. Not so, said Ayrault.
“He had the most votes in every round of that election and clearly would have won under the current plurality rule, there’s no disputing that,” said Ayrault. “One of the simplest ways to put it is no voting system can protect us from unqualified candidates.”
When the top-two primary was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, Pierce County voters voted ranked choice voting out by a more than 70-30 percent margin.
Ayrault called the abandonment of ranked choice voting in Pierce County “a perfect storm” and not to be blamed on the system itself, but rather how it was implemented.
“The challenges Pierce County faced were much more a reflection of the time than of the particular voting method,” she said. “It was costly, logistically challenging, and since then (those issues) have been solved by other jurisdictions.”
Ayrault said about 4 million voters in different parts of the nation use ranked choice voting and “nobody has had a repeat of what Pierce County went through. (The county) cleared the way.” She said there is a “huge wave of interest” in the voting system today, “so the fact Pierce County had a bad experience is not really a good reason to not allow them to try it again a decade later, if they want to.”