Seattle voters: Right here’s what to find out about approval voting vs. ranked selection — and the techies concerned

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Mail-in ballots
(King County Elections Photo)

Seattle voters are tasked with answering a big question on November’s ballot: Do you want to change the way you vote in primary elections? 

Voters will be asked two questions: one, if they think the city should use a new voting system, and two, which option: ranked choice voting or approval voting. Both would shake up primary elections in Seattle, allowing voters to express support for more than one candidate. And they could serve as a model for changing election systems across the country. 

Seattle Approves is behind the push for approval voting. The campaign is led by several veterans of the Seattle tech scene, including former Amazon manager Logan Bowers and entrepreneur Troy Davis. The campaign collected more than 26,000 signatures to get the initiative on November’s ballot.

The effort has received more than $300,000 from The Center for Election Science, a think tank with a noted interest in supporting approval voting campaigns around the country. Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, contributed $135,000. Other backers include John Hegeman, a Silicon Valley-based vice president at Meta and board member at The Center for Election Science, and Aviel Ginzburg, a venture capitalist in Seattle.

Fargo, N.D., and St. Louis have used approval voting.

The Seattle City Council added ranked-choice voting to the November ballot in July, after it became apparent that approval voting would qualify. Ranked-choice efforts have been driven by FairVote Washington, which is also conducting campaigns in Clark and San Juan counties. The Seattle proposal’s endorsements include King County Democrats, the League of Women Voters, and Washington Conservation Voters. Earlier this month it received $200,000 from national nonprofit FairVote Action.

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Ranked choice is more prevalent than approval voting. It is used in statewide voting in Alaska and Maine, as well as local elections in New York City and other municipalities.

There is another campaign called Election Simplicity, which wants to maintain the current voting system. That effort has backing from former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, Seattle Mariners chairman John Stanton, and Space Needle chairman Jeffrey Wright.

There are differences between ranked choice voting and approval voting. Here’s what you need to know as you fill out your ballot.

Isn’t this a case of potato, potahto?

Not really. While it’s true that both systems are aiming to solve the same issue — the election of candidates with relatively small percentages of public support — the two are actually pretty different.  

Approval voting, denoted on the ballot as “Proposition 1A,” asks voters to cast a vote for any candidate of which they approve. In crowded primary elections, a voter could theoretically cast a dozen votes for candidates, all of which would be equally tallied toward the primary vote count. Then, as usual, candidates with the most votes would advance to primary elections.

  • Backers of the proposal, officially called Initiative-134, say it will ensure candidates consider all voters instead of just a small fraction.
  • “Today, candidates only need 25-to-30% support to get through the primary,” said Davis, a leader of the Seattle Approves campaign who sold a cloud computing startup in 2015. “Candidates know they can get 25% support without reaching beyond their strongest supporters, which creates a disincentive to engage with all voters.”
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Ranked choice voting, called “Proposition 1B” on the ballot, would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference. When tallying votes, the least popular option would be eliminated, then votes would be recounted with the second-choice option ranked highest for those who listed the eliminated candidate as a first choice.

  • The ability to state an ordered preference is important, said Stephanie Houghton with FairVote Washington, an organization driving the campaign for ranked choice.
  • “With approval voting, you’re just voting for everyone you could possibly stand to have in office,” she said. “There’s no way to indicate which one of those people you like more or less. That’s a really important difference.”

Wait, so how can I vote on this?

The proposed changes are grouped together on the ballot, and there are two questions posed to voters. First, you’ll be asked a yes-or-no question — if either proposal should be enacted into law. Then, regardless of how you answered that first question, you’ll be asked to state a preference for either approval or ranked-choice voting.

If a majority of voters answer “yes” to the first question, then the second question will determine which system will become the new primary standard.

When would changes to elections actually happen?

If approval voting was enacted, it would show up on primary ballots in 2025. Ranked choice voting would require changes to county election processes and wouldn’t go into effect until 2027. 

Davis said that’s a reason to support approval voting. 

“Proposition 1A doesn’t cost any money to implement,” he said. “No new ballots, no new software. The other option, proposition 1B, would cost millions per election. …Worse, proposition 1B wouldn’t be used until 2027, long after the city council and mayoral elections. We don’t need to wait five years or spend millions to have city government that represents everyone.”

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Houghton said ranked choice is worth waiting for. 

“Ranked-choice voting in particular is an answer to a problem we hear a lot about,” she said. “Voters don’t feel represented by their government, and that is true on many levels of government. Ranked choice voting is the solution to that problem. The results will more accurately represent the voters.”

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