Are we willing to change the way we vote? That question fueled the discussion at a Monday meeting sponsored by the Edmonds Civic Roundtable.
The discussion is about a possible major shift in the way we have always voted. It was billed as a look “at how we might vote or not vote in the future.” Proponents of what is called ranked-choice voting took the idea to some two dozen in the live audience at the Edmonds Waterfront Center; others joined via Zoom.
Lisa Ayrault, executive director of the group FairVote Washington, and her colleague, Eric Bidstrup, walked the audience through what ranked choice means. The group defines it this way:
“You get to ‘rank’ the (your) candidates in order of preference. Who do you want most? Rank them first. Who would you pick second? Rank them second, and so on. When the ballots are counted, if your first choice has the least support, then your vote automatically goes to your next choice to help them win.”
You would still use just one ballot to mark who you want as your top candidate, your next choice, your third choice, etc. If your first choice doesn’t get enough support, your vote then goes to your second choice, and so on.
In most places, Ayrault added, ranked choice could combine the primary election and general election into a single vote. Maine and Alaska now use ranked-choice voting to decide all state and presidential races. Wyoming, Nevada, and Nebraska voted in their 2020 Presidential primaries using ranked choice. Last year, Minneapolis and New York City elected their new mayors that way.
Ayrault said ranked choice gives “more voice, more choice in a representative democracy that works for all of us.” As an example, she pointed out that 397,000 votes in the 2020 Washington Democratic Presidential primary went to candidates who had dropped out of the race before the primary; effectively “wasting the votes” of people who had turned in ballots. Had voters been able to rank their choices, first, second, third, etc. then their vote would still count by moving to the next candidate.
Ranked choice is making news because the Washington State Legislature is considering two bills that could give local communities the ability to use ranked-choice voting to conduct elections. You can read about Substitute House Bill 1156 here and Senate Bill 5584 here.
State law currently prohibits towns, cities and counties from using ranked choice. The two bills would not force communities to change their voting system, but would allow them to decide if they want to conduct local elections that way.
Edmonds resident David Preston challenged Ayrault, saying she is a “lobbyist” and pitching just one side of this issue. We checked and Ayrault is registered as a lobbyist with the State Public Disclosure Commission. However, she says her role as executive director of FairVote Washington is to explain the issue to voters, not lobby for it.
Preston suggested that there are people “who are very staunchly against this” and he took issue with the Edmonds Civic Roundtable (ECR), arguing that the group was “not being fair by not having both sides” present. Roger Pence, who set up the program for the ECR, said he had hoped to have the other side, but had not been able to find anyone to speak. He also added that this session was not a debate, just an introduction to ranked-choice voting.
The Edmonds Civic Roundtable, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization, has as its stated mission “to inform and educate residents about key issues affecting local government and the community.”
Former Edmonds City Council candidate Janelle Cass wondered if now is the time to bring up ranked-choice voting. Cass said even if the state passed new voting changes, the issue should still be up to a local vote to decide whether Edmonds would adopt ranked choice.
Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson told the group that if Olympia passes the measure, she expected “it would go to the people to decide if they want to do it.” She added that what we could face is how “we solve problems and put policy in place to serve all the people.” The council discussed ranked choice last December but has taken no further action. Ayrault said that the cities of Bellingham, Snohomish, Vancouver, Wash. and Spokane have expressed support for the legislation.
Ayrault also cited what she called additional benefits to ranked choice – involving more ‘voices,’ more diversity, more equitable representation, more “positive” issues-focused campaigning, and potential cost savings if communities no longer have to hold primary elections. Ayrault insisted the change does not favor one party over another; that reliably Republican Utah uses ranked choice, that the Virginia GOP used it last election to choose their candidate for governor and that heavily Democratic San Francisco votes that way too.
But, when asked if she thought that in the current climate of political divisiveness, either of these bills would pass the state Legislature, Ayrault was candid: “I have zero confidence that any legislation of significance is going to pass” this year, she said. The bills are in committee; the deadline to get them out for a floor vote is just three weeks away. While ranked-choice voting is up for discussion; it may not yet be ready for action.
— By Bob Throndsen