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Advocates say ranked choice voting will restore trust in democracy; Secretary of State’s Office opposes it

At a Wednesday House Appropriations Committee hearing, the Secretary of State’s Office testified in opposition to a bill that would permit the use of ranked choice voting in local elections. At the same hearing, proponents of the bill said ranked choice voting is a pro-democracy reform that will strengthen elections and faith in government.

Under a ranked choice voting system, voters may rank multiple candidates in order of preference. For single-winner elections, votes are tabulated using a method called instant runoff voting. After voters’ first-choice votes are tabulated, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. Subsequently, votes for the eliminated candidate are transferred to the next ranked candidate on those ballots. Votes are retallied, and the process continues until one candidate reaches a winning threshold.

The method gets a bit more complicated in elections for multiple-member offices. After the winning threshold is calculated based on the number of seats to be filled and the number of votes cast, ballots are counted in rounds and votes are transferred to candidates based on who has been eliminated and who has passed the winning threshold.

Jay Jennings, Legislative Director for the Secretary of State’s Office said the bill, sponsored by Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (D – Seattle) would result in diminished voter confidence.

House Bill 1156 encourages entirely new methods to be adopted in an unknown number of jurisdictions from school board members, city council members, port districts and the like. These are unpredictably spread throughout the state, sometimes in overlapping counties.”

According to a legislative summary of the bill, here are a few the main provisions.

  • Permits the use of ranked choice voting (RCV) in elections for offices in counties, cities, towns, school districts, fire districts, and port districts, and establishes certain requirements for RCV ballot design and vote tabulation.
  • Adds a cost-recovery provision to the Washington Voting Rights Act (Act) to allow a person who files a notice alleging a violation of the Act to recoup research costs, up to $30,000, if the political subdivision adopts a remedy in response to the notice.
  • Permits the Secretary of State to provide grants to local governments to implement RCV, switch to even-year elections, or make changes to their electoral system in response to a notice filed under the Act, subject to appropriation.

Jennings says the number of local jurisdictions and potential outcomes of elections within each will lead to voter confusion.

There are 1,086 eligible jurisdictions, so the number of possible permutations seems nearly infinite, Considering the potential number of variations, you may share our concern regarding voter confusion. As proposed, each of the governing bodies and jurisdictions could choose a new and slightly different method for casting ballots, and a new and slightly different algorithm to determine the outcome of an election. And all of this is to be presented on one ballot.”

Jennings and another testifier also lamented what they say is a high cost burden – up to $8.2 million for the Secretary of State’s Office. But Sharon Hanek, a testifier from Pierce County, said the bill’s fiscal note leaves out the costs for counties, which she says could involve upgrading or buying new tabulation machines, as well as increased labor costs associated with potential audits.

In 2006, Pierce County voted to implement ranked choice voting. But three years later, after the 2008 election, voters repealed the system. Some voters reportedly felt that it helped elect an unqualified assessor-treasurer.

Linda Brewster, Chair of the democratic reform organization, Fix Democracy First, said that the bill’s fiscal impact is a small price to pay for increased voter engagement.

Rather than being forced to choose what sometimes feels like the lesser of two evils, I could give voice to my priorities. I could better represent my concerns using this method. And voters feel more engaged is priceless. It’s always a good thing. It’ll increase voter turnout and decrease voter cynicism,” said Brewster.

Another testifier, Kelsey Breseman, said the current voting system allows for discussions of policy in elections to be crowded out by concerns over “electability.”

Under our current system, it is considered hopelessly naive to use your conscience when exercising one of your primary civic duties. Having and using personal values is subsumed by this no-win game which is played at all levels of government. As a voter, instead of voting to represent your stances on issues, our current system requires folks to engage in guessing games redirecting critical conversations about issues and policy to endless discussions of who or what is electable. Do you feel manipulated? Because I do,” said Breseman.

Supporters of ranked choice voting also say that it will decrease negative campaigning. A 2020 study by the University of Technology Sydney found that the introduction of ranked choice voting improved the civility of debates with candidates in some municipalities.

Municipalities in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York have implemented ranked choice voting in local elections. One state, Maine, has used it in statewide and federal elections. And in 2020, Alaska voters approved a ballot measure that will require use of ranked choice voting in future state and federal elections.

Supports say a reform like ranked choice voting meets the moment at hand for American democracy.

With ranked choice voting we have a chance to let citizens vote in ways that would represent their true values and stances,” said Breseman. “You can list your actual preferences instead of picking between two people you would not like to see hold office or ‘throwing away your vote.’ This is critical to a restoration of trust in what is now a very beaten down America.”

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee moved the bill out of executive session in a bipartisan, 22-11 vote.

According to a news release from FairVote Washington, the cities of Olympia, Bellingham, Gold Bar, Spokane, and Seattle have each declared support for HB 1156.

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