Seattle narrowly approves ranked-choice voting

Barring a recount, the city will change its approach to primary elections.

ballots on a table

Ballots sitting on a table. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle voters have decided to change the way they vote by adopting ranked-choice voting.

Although King County still has about 100 votes to count and citizens can still demand a recount on this close election, the decision appears to have been made. 

About 51% of voters said Seattle should change its primary voting system away from the state’s top-two primary and 49% said no to the change, with a vote gap of almost exactly 6,000 votes.

The results on the second ballot question were much clearer: 76% said the new primary system should be ranked-choice voting and 24% chose approval voting.

Ranked-choice voting allows people to rank candidates on their ballot in numerical order of preference. Approval voting lets voters select as many candidates as they want, but assigns no rank to those choices.

Nearly 50 cities and counties in the U.S. currently allow voters to select or rank multiple candidates in elections, and two states – Alaska and Maine – use some version of ranked-choice for all elections. 

Voters in San Juan County rejected a similar proposal this November to adopt ranked-choice voting with 57% of ballots rejecting the idea. As did voters in Clark County, with 58% of voters rejecting the idea.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting believe letting voters select multiple candidates may eliminate the “spoiler effect”: when two candidates with similar positions lose to a third candidate that a majority of voters aren’t happy with. This approach has also been shown to increase the diversity of candidates and can potentially reduce polarization.

According to FairVote, an organization that pushes for election reform, voters in Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, as well as cities in California, Illinois and Colorado also approved ranked-choice voting this election season. 

FairVote Washington, which pushed for ranked-choice voting after the Seattle City Council put the measure on the ballot, celebrated the election victory a week ago. Stephanie Houghton, managing director of the group, said their next stop will be the Washington Legislature. 

“We’re taking this momentum to the Legislature where we can do even more to empower voters with more voice and more choice,” Houghton said in a written statement.

Local ballot initiatives are not subject to mandatory recounts, according to Halei Watkins, a spokeswoman for King County Elections. For votes to be recounted for this ballot measure, a group of registered voters or a campaign would need to request and pay for it. A requested recount requires a paid deposit of 15 cents per ballot for a machine recount or 25 cents a ballot for a hand recount, Watkins said. 

“If the outcome of the race is unchanged — as is typically the case — the requestor is responsible for all outstanding costs associated with the recount,” she said, noting that recount history in King County can be found on the department’s website.

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