Like a couple of candidate on a poll? New initiative led by techies goals to permit a number of votes

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Members of the Seattle Approves campaign at Seattle City Hall. Back row, from left: Evan Radkoff, Logan Bowers, and Sarah Ward. Front row: Efrain Hudnell, Mason Traylor, and Troy Davis. (Seattle Approves Photo)

When Seattle voters mark their ballots for primary elections now, they can select only one candidate for each race. But an initiative filed earlier this week aims to change that.

I-134 seeks to bring “approval voting” to Seattle primary ballots. Approval voting is more or less what it sounds like: Instead of selecting just one candidate in each race, voters would fill in the bubbles for as many candidates as they want. And on ballots jam-packed full of candidates with similar platforms, some voters might end up approving of several.

When primary votes are tallied, the two candidates with the most approval overall would move on to the general election.

“It allows you to be more honest when you’re filling out your ballot,” said Evan Radkoff, a former Amazon engineer who’s part of the team behind I-134.

The Seattle Approves campaign, led by several veterans of the Seattle tech scene, filed the ballot initiative with the city Monday. To make it onto the November ballot, the campaign will need to collect more than 26,000 signatures in the first half of this year.

Already, the campaign has attracted support from at least one national election-reform think tank: a $160,000 donation from the Center for Election Science. The center’s website currently features a front-and-center appeal for donations to election-reform efforts, stating that “Seattle is the new frontier for approval voting.”

“We came into this with the question, how can we make our election system as representative as possible?”

So far, Seattle Approves has raised just shy of $200,000 to aid signature-gathering efforts. Other donors include Seattle entrepreneurs Galen Ward, Aviel Ginzburg, and Martin Tobias, along with employees of Google and Microsoft.

Logan Bowers, another Seattle Approves founder, ran for city council in 2019 — an experience he says underscores the problem with Seattle’s current system of primary voting. For long-shot candidates in crowded elections, participating in a primary election means siphoning votes from similar candidates with a better shot at winning.

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“Best-case scenario is you ruin it for another candidate who’s similar to you, because you ended up splitting the vote,” said Bowers, a startup founder and Amazon employee. “The best-case outcome is you kind of wreck it.”

And Bowers said that might discourage potential candidates from running in the first place.

Proponents of approval voting say it’s a way to achieve more representative election results while also encouraging participation. But some critics argue that approval voting doesn’t allow for the nuance of voters having top-choice candidates, even if there are others they approve of to a lesser degree.

“Indeed, it’s possible that a candidate whom well over half of voters see as a top choice could lose to someone who nobody sees as their top choice,” writes Rob Richie for FairVote, which is advocating for “ranked choice” voting in King County.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to assign an order of preference to candidates. But that system faces legislative hurdles, while approval voting could be implemented in Seattle next year.

“We could have this in 2023 and actually be using it in 2023,” said Troy Davis, another tech veteran and founder of the Seattle Approves campaign.

Approval voting is currently being used in St. Louis as well as in Fargo, N.D. The reform was approved in St. Louis in 2020, garnering 68% approval at the polls. But an effort is underway to repeal approval voting in that city and replace it with a partisan system that includes a runoff contingency in the event that no candidate earns a majority of the vote.

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The team behind I-134 sees approval voting as a uniquely representative system that will make it harder for a candidate to advance to the general election with just a small percentage of the vote.

“What we wanted to do is choose the method that is most representative,” Davis said. “Approval voting is unique for not advantaging anyone. It doesn’t put any single candidate or viewpoint at an advantage or disadvantage.” 

The tech backgrounds of the Seattle Approves leaders have influenced how they’ve approached election reform.

“For me, that background has encouraged me to think about the bigger picture of how systems work,” Radkoff said. “We’re used to civic engagement that’s just working toward the next election cycle. But how do we want elections to be run on the scale of decades?”

Bowers added that thinking about user experience – or in this case, voter experience – is the key reason he thinks approval voting is the right choice for Seattle.

“A focus on user experience applies to voting systems,” he said. “We came into this with the question, how can we make our election system as representative as possible?”

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