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Is it time for WA to give ranked-choice voting a shot?

Some lawmakers say it could make for less divisive politics. Others remain wary, based on Pierce County’s past experience with the alternative voting method.

Marvin Eng places his ballot inside a ballot drop-off box outside of New Holly Gathering Hall in Rainier Valley, Seattle, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The buzz around ranked-choice voting is growing louder. The vote-counting method, which allows voters to rank several candidates by order of preference, was recently used to elect three members of Congress in Maine — a historic first. Meanwhile, a number of cities plan to implement the voting system, joining the ranks of early adopters, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, which have been using it for years.

Now, some legislators in Olympia want to open the door to ranked-choice voting in cities and counties across Washington state.

Yet some Washington residents still view the method as an experiment they’d like to forget.

In 2006, voters in Pierce County, the state's second most populous county, embraced ranked-choice voting. Three years later, those same voters decided to repeal it.

Today, Pierce County’s experience still haunts many local politicians as a cautionary tale. Two-thirds of local voters who responded to county surveys in 2008 said they didn’t like the new system. And some people still blame it for helping elect an assessor-treasurer, Dale Washam, who many saw as unqualified.

“From my point of view it was a disaster when Pierce County tried ranked-choice voting, and it was not well designed,” said state Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.

Advocates of ranked-choice voting, however, say it is time to try again. They see the voting method as a potential solution to overly partisan politics, as well as a tool to reduce the negativity of campaigns.

With national surveys showing that Americans have become more politically polarized in recent years, proponents hope ranked-choice voting can help bridge some of those divides.

A bill receiving a public hearing Wednesday in Olympia aims to rekindle the experiment Pierce County abandoned a decade ago, but on a larger scale. House Bill 1722 would alter Washington state’s election rules to allow cities, counties and other jurisdictions to adopt ranked-choice voting at the local level.

The bill would work like this: For certain local races, voters would have as many as five candidates to choose from on their general election ballot, rather than the two that show up under the current system.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on the first count, the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes would be knocked out. Voters who preferred the losing candidate would then have their votes redirected to their next-choice candidates — a process that would continue until a winner is determined.

"Ultimately, people are kind of pigeonholed in the general election to the most extreme candidates that got past the primary election from both parties," said state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the ranked-choice legislation.

Unlike the system in Maine, the Washington bill wouldn't institute ranked-choice voting statewide or for federal races  it instead would allow local governments to introduce the method if they so choose. But its backers say many of the goals are similar. 

“It’s all about giving voters real choices, eliminating divisive campaigns, and letting people vote for their true choice — without fear of wasting their vote," Palumbo said.

More choices, fewer attacks

Proponents of ranked-choice voting say it can also help cut down on negative campaigning. Candidates theoretically have less incentive to attack their political rivals, because they may need to appeal to a wide range of voters to win.

“Candidates in ranked choice races quickly learn it is not effective to trash their opponent, because they actually want their opponent’s supporters to put them in second place,” said Lisa Ayrault, chair of FairVote Washington, which supports ranked-choice voting.

Research bears out that theory. Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, said that in cities with ranked-choice voting, voters were happier with how their local campaigns were conducted and less likely to view them as negative. According to Donovan’s research, voters in cities with ranked-choice systems were less likely to report that candidates frequently criticized each other.

Ranked-choice voting can also reduce the possibility of a widely unpopular candidate winning an election, said Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor of political science at Drexel University. Even in races where many like-minded candidates may split the vote, the candidate that the most people can live with is the one who tends to prevail, once voters’ second and third-place preferences are factored in, he said.

“It elects the least disliked candidate,” Santucci said.

I think this kind of work can help change the frame or the culture of how we see all people running for office as viable candidates.
— State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac

State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, said a desire for more diverse representation in government is among her reasons for sponsoring the ranked-choice legislation in the House.

Right now, she said, “many people in my community get pushed out” during primary elections, which have much lower turnout. With ranked-choice voting, primaries would not be necessary in most cases. A wide range of candidates could appear on the ballot in general elections, which have much higher participation.

“Especially as a woman of color, I was told at one point I couldn’t use my middle name on the ballot if I wanted to be elected,” said Gregerson, who was born in Taiwan and whose middle name is Su-Ling.

“I think this kind of work can help change the frame or the culture of how we see all people running for office as viable candidates,” she said.

What happened in Pierce County

Still, the specter of Pierce County’s short-lived experiment has not faded from officials’ minds. Though Pierce County voters passed a charter amendment approving ranked-choice voting in 2006, the county used the system for only two election cycles before voters scrapped it in 2009.

What happened? Back-and-forth changes in election law at the state level played a role.

In 2004, after decades of allowing voters to split tickets on primary election ballots, Washington adopted a pick-a-party primary process. Many voters didn’t like that they were suddenly limited to voting for candidates from only one political party, said state elections director Lori Augino, who was previously Pierce County’s election manager. And so Pierce County adopted ranked-choice voting.

But then the landscape shifted again. In 2008, the state ditched the pick-a-party primary in favor of a top-two primary election process. Now, the two candidates who won the most votes in the primary — regardless of which party they belonged to — would advance to the general election. And voters could once again vote for whichever candidates they preferred, sapping ranked-choice of some of its allure.

Another downside for the county was the cost. Implementing ranked-choice voting cost Pierce County $1.6 million in 2008, roughly doubling the cost of that year’s general election, according to the county auditor’s office.

Part of that resulted from officials printing separate ballots for county races that used the ranked-choice system, while still producing standard ballots for other races, such as contests for city council and legislative seats.  

Then there was Dale Washam. After years of failed campaigns, Washam finally won election as Pierce County’s assessor-treasurer in 2008, the first year the county tried ranked-choice voting.

For some, Washam’s ascendance to public office gave ranked-choice voting a permanent black eye.

During Washam’s tenure, independent investigations found he mistreated employees and retaliated against those who complained. He also was found to have misused government resources.

Ultimately, voters ran Washam out of office. He won less than 11 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary, failing to advance to that year’s general election.

But to this day, some still think that without ranked-choice voting, Washam never would have been elected in the first place.

“He was a perennial candidate, so he had some kind of name ID, but he never rose to the top because he was never seen as very credible,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup.  “In a top-two contest, I think that would have been exposed.”

It is hard enough in elections to really convince people their vote counts. When you start adding an algorithm into the process, it creates a little bit of voter confusion.
— State Auditor Pat McCarthy

In Dammeier’s view, the candidates in the ranked-choice election “didn’t have the rigorous vetting that would come out in a head-to-head contest.”

Determining what might have happened under a different election system is difficult, if not impossible. But Ayrault, the chair of FairVote Washington, noted that Washam was ahead in each round of vote-counting during his successful bid for office in 2008. She said that suggests he probably would have won anyway, even if ranked-choice voting hadn’t been in place.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said no election system is foolproof when it comes to keeping unqualified people out of office.

However, Jinkins said, "There is a really good argument to be made that ranked-choice voting ends up giving you the person in office who the most people support the most."

State Auditor Pat McCarthy, a Democrat elected as Pierce County executive through ranked-choice voting in 2008, has a slightly different take. She sided with those seeking to repeal Pierce County’s ranked-choice voting in 2009, helping author a statement in the county voters guide that called it “a flawed system.”

“I will tell you that it is hard enough in elections to really convince people their vote counts,” McCarthy, said in an interview earlier this month. “When you start adding an algorithm into the process, it creates a little bit of voter confusion.”

Jinkins said she thinks if people across the world, including in countries such as Ireland and Australia, can successfully use ranked-choice voting, people in the United States can, too.

“I do not think Americans and Washingtonians are stupider than people in other countries,” she said.

Going forward

A great deal has changed since 2009, said Julie Anderson, Pierce County’s present-day auditor. Election technology has improved, making things “smarter and faster,” she said. Plus, Pierce County has joined the rest of the state in moving to all-mail voting. Back in 2008 and 2009, the county still operated in-person polling places, which created extra headaches when implementing a ranked-choice system, she said.

The costs might be more manageable today as well. Last year, Maine officials estimated that implementing ranked choice voting statewide cost them only $111,000 above the cost of a typical primary election. That’s about one-fourteenth of what Pierce County officials said they spent to implement ranked-choice voting a decade earlier.

“If you gave us enough time, and enough money, and there was widely available certified technology, we could do it,” said Anderson, who is the legislative chair of the Washington State Association of County Auditors.

Still, Washington state has its own challenges. For one, elections here are mostly run by individually elected county auditors, with each county tabulating its votes independently.

That makes it much more difficult to conduct ranked-choice elections for jurisdictions that cross county lines, a category that includes many school districts, fire districts and state legislative districts, Anderson said.

For Maine’s ranked-choice congressional elections, by contrast, the ballots are sent to a central state office for tabulation, eliminating some of those complications, said Augino, the state elections director.

County auditors also see potential for confusion if some local jurisdictions switch to ranked-choice voting, but others in the same county do not, Anderson said. That would mean there could potentially be different types of voting systems being used on the same ballot for different races.

“We would rather see ranked choice voting implemented statewide, like the state of Maine, or not at all,” Anderson said.

The bill being heard in committee Wednesday doesn’t go that far. It would open up ranked-choice voting options only to local governments. Races for governor, attorney general, Congress and the state Legislature, for instance, wouldn’t be eligible.

“I think you’ve got to start somewhere,” Palumbo said. “If it is easier to do on a small basis, then so be it.”

Even some supporters of ranked-choice voting, however, question whether it would be the political panacea that many hope.

That includes Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chairman who quit the GOP and now identifies as an independent. He noted that even with Washington state having no party registration requirements for most elections and a top-two primary, voters here “still elect nothing other than Republicans and Democrats.”

"I am for anything that can blow up this rotten two-party system, but in the end we are not going to fix this by doing ranked-choice voting,” said Vance, who has recently been working to elect independents to public office. 

Vance doubted that the Legislature will pass a ranked-choice voting bill this session, given how such a change could threaten the political establishment. He said citizens might have to introduce an initiative if they really want to see ranked-choice voting happen in Washington state.

“You need $2 million to do a statewide ballot initiative," he said. "Like they did in Maine."

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Is it time for WA to give ranked-choice voting a shot?

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.