A task force that was formed to increase diversity on the Vancouver City Council is turning its attention to the possibility of implementing ranked-choice voting in local elections.
Ranked-choice voting, or a system that allows voters to rank their choices rather than check a single box on a ballot, is under consideration by the Community Task Force on Council Representation. The group formed late last year to advise the council on policies that might make the all-white governing body more representative of the city it serves.
The idea for the new electoral system isn’t new. It gained traction in Vancouver in the late 1990s as “instant runoff voting,” and city voters were the first in the state to approve an initiative favoring it. The system was never implemented by the city council in the face of state legal challenges.
It’s since caught a second wind, with proponents for ranked-choice voting laying the groundwork for regional lobbying efforts after the 2018 election. About 20 cities around the country have held elections with the system, and Maine was the first state to use ranked-choice voting to elect federal representatives in the midterms.
“The goal is that an elected body, as closely as possible, will match the makeup of the voters,” said Colin Cole, policy director at More Equitable Democracy, a nonprofit that works to enact electoral reforms that result in more diverse leaders.
Cole addressed the task force at its Jan. 30 meeting along with representatives from FairVote Washington, a statewide group aiming to advance ranked-choice voting.
Lisa Ayrault from FairVote Washington called ranked-choice voting one tool in “a practical toolkit” to achieve the city’s ultimate goal, improving diversity on the dais.
In her presentation, Ayrault commended Vancouver for seeking out policies that could improve diversity in its leadership at all. Yakima, for example, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in 2012 for an electoral process that systematically disenfranchised the city’s Hispanic population.
“There are places that are doing that out of duress, but you’re doing it out of foresight,” Ayrault said.
What is ranked-choice voting?
Ranked choice voting lets voters rank all the candidates on their ballot by order of preference, instead of just selecting their favorite one.
If a majority of voters pick a single candidate as their first choice, then congratulations — that candidate won.
But if nobody claims a majority, the person who got the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. For the voters who favored the lowest-earning candidate, that doesn’t mean their ballots are discounted. Instead, their votes go to their second choices.
If the redistribution is enough to get a single candidate over the 50 percent threshold, then that candidate wins. If not, then the process repeats itself, as many times as it needs to in order to find the winner.
What are the benefits of a ranked-choice system?
Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the system makes for more equitable elections, and for more representative results.
Traditional winner-take-all elections, they argue, have a dampening effect on democracy. They encourage voters to act like pundits instead of participants — if everyone casts a vote based on who they think is most likely to win, instead of who they actually want in office, has the will of the people truly been heard?
Supporters also say a ranked-choice system encourages more candidates to participate in the process even if they have minority support. That can introduce new ideas and issues into elections that wouldn’t otherwise get airtime without “spoiling” the will of the majority by splitting the vote. It can also boost voter turnout, because voters who don’t like either of the top two candidates might otherwise just stay home.
That piece is especially key to encouraging diversity in races, Ayrault said.
“Would you go to an ice cream parlor that only has two flavors, and you don’t really even like either of them?” Ayrault asked the task force.
And ranked-choice elections tend to be more civil than a winner-takes-it-all battle royal, she added — it’s a bad strategy to go scorched-earth on your opponent when you’re courting the second-choice votes of their base. Best to make nice, focus on the issues and build a coalition.
An additional benefit is that a ranked-choice ballot would eliminate the need to whittle down the field with a primary. Holding elections costs money, and repeated elections can test the attention spans of busy voters. Ranked-choice ballots also essentially build runoff elections into the general election ballot, so there’s no need to actually hold a runoff in a close race.
Criticism of the change
Critics of a ranked-choice system argue that it’s unnecessarily convoluted, and that its benefits are oversold as a cure-all to everything that ails modern American democracy.
They also point to ballot exhaustion. If six people are running for a seat, not all voters will have the time to research all six. Instead, they may pick their top two or three, but if none of those candidates make it through to the final round, the voter won’t have had a say in the final election results. This could ultimately disenfranchise voters with the least amount of time to devote to local elections — disproportionately poor and working-class people.
And in addition to the administrative headaches (the current software used by most Washington counties is not equipped to handle ranked-choice ballots), there’s the ideological hurdle. Is the bedrock of a republic not the simple idea that one person equals one vote?
That proved a sticking point for some of the seven members of the Community Task Force on Council Representation. One member, Glen Yung, said he objected to the idea of manipulating elections.
“I am saddened by the fact that we have to manipulate the system, so that these people will vote for their people,” Yung said. “It’s just sad to me that we’re in a situation where we’re thinking about voting for different people based on color and race.”
A fellow member, former city council candidate Diana Perez, said it might be a good thing for the city to consider ouside-the-box options to tackle such a layered issue like lack of diversity. Another option on the table is electoral districts, a prospect that may make running for citywide office more accessible to people who face more restrictions on their money and time.
“You were uncomfortable. That’s a start,” Perez said, addressing Yung.
“The truth is, we don’t have equal opportunities for people of various backgrounds to run for city council. So what are we going to do as a task force to peel that onion?”