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Seattle Will Choose Between Competing Voting Reform Measures

Initiative 134 in the upcoming November election will ask residents to consider the use of ranked-choice voting as well as approval voting. But not all agree putting both voting systems on the same ballot is a good idea.

(TNS) — Two voting reform options will be on the November ballot after the Seattle City Council fast-tracked an alternative to a signature-driven effort touted as a better way to reflect voters' wishes.

In a special meeting Thursday, July 14, the council voted to ask voters to consider ranked-choice voting alongside approval voting, which landed on the ballot as Initiative 134 after a successful petition effort.

The move away from more traditional voting has gained steam across the country as advocates seek more equitable elections. Either one would change the city's current primary election process, in which voters choose one candidate and the top two move on to the general election.

One national group that advocates for open and nonpartisan primary elections — and supports both ranked-choice and approval voting systems — wrote a letter to the council Thursday seeking to discourage placing both methods on the ballot.

"Don't pit these two alternative voting systems against each other," the group, Open Primaries, said in its letter.

Both options could improve representation of voters by allowing them to back multiple candidates in primary elections. The council proposal to allow ranked choice would answer a yearslong call from some voters who feel prioritizing candidates would result in a fairer shake for young and minority candidates, but would take years to implement.

Under ranked choice, voters rank candidates by preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, subsequent rankings are considered until a majority is reached.

Adopting approval voting would satiate a newer movement to back multiple candidates equally, aimed at cutting down on negative campaigning and spoiler candidates, but it would mean backing a nearly untested election model.

Approval voting, which received more than the 26,000 required signatures to win a place on the ballot, allows voters to vote for multiple candidates without ranking, meaning each selection is weighted equally.

"Ironically, if you send two measures to the ballot in response to citizens petitioning for one, you will be doing a grave disservice to the ranked choice voting movement, which is gaining popularity at the state and local level," the Open Primaries letter reads. "If people see ranked choice voting as a tool used by politicians to derail other voting reforms such as approval voting, not as a genuine reform in and of itself, that will impact negatively."

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who proposed adding ranked choice voting as an alternative, said it may be unnecessary to adopt any change to the city's current primary election process. But if voters are going to consider reform, they should have both as an option and be the "final arbiters" of the decision, he said.

"We just went through a public comment session where two times as many people called in supporting ranked-choice voting as called in supporting the approval voting alternative," he said. The council would be depriving voters of the final decision if choosing ranked-choice voting was not an option, he said.

Ranked choice is used in dozens of cities and states, including New York City, San Francisco and Oakland, California, which are similar in size to Seattle. Approval voting is only used in a few locations, like St. Louis and Fargo, North Dakota.

While ranked choice wouldn't take effect until 2027 because of the complex changes to the King County Elections process, Lewis said the more tested reform was worth the wait.

"In practical terms, ranked-choice voting greatly enhances the discourse of our elections," Lewis said.

Supporters of approval voting criticized the hasty alternative, which was introduced to council and voted on in a special-called meeting the same week, accusing council members of interfering with a citizen-led ballot measure that would affect their own reelection campaigns.

"There's no reason to rush reform that many years in advance that would affect your own elections when you can simply place it on the ballot at a later time," Logan Bowers, an organizer for Seattle Approves, which organized the initiative, said during public comment.

Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Alex Pedersen said neither new system was necessary, but supported putting both on the ballot. Councilmember Sara Nelson criticized the council's involvement.

"I don't know if approval voting is better or worse than rank-choice voting or even our current system, but I do know that if we take five votes to send an alternative to the ballot, that could influence the outcome of the election without a lot of public discussion," Nelson said.

"I think council should just get out of the way, send [initiative] 134 to the ballot and let voters decide in November," she said.

(c)2022 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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