NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, July 14th, 2022

Seattle City Council’s move to put RCV on ballot reflects widespread voter enthusiasm

This autumn, Seat­tle will be at the cen­ter of a live­ly debate con­cern­ing alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods after the City Coun­cil vot­ed to sub­mit a pro­posed ordi­nance to deploy ranked choice vot­ing (RCV) to the city­wide bal­lot along­side a cit­i­zen-spon­sored ini­tia­tive (I‑134) that would imple­ment approval voting.

The city’s nine-mem­ber leg­isla­tive body had the option of send­ing I‑134 to the bal­lot by itself or with an alter­na­tive that would give Seat­tle vot­ers a choice of vot­ing meth­ods. In a series of votes, the Coun­cil decid­ed that vot­ers ought to be able to con­sid­er both RCV and approval vot­ing at the same time.

NPI’s research sug­gests that vot­ers will wel­come this move by the Council.

In our first-ever poll of the Seat­tle elec­torate, con­duct­ed a year ago for NPI by Change Research, we found that two-thirds (66%) of like­ly 2021 vot­ers in Seat­tle were sup­port­ive of ranked choice vot­ing, while only 23% were opposed and 16% were not sure. That’s a mar­gin of near­ly three-to-one. 

Ranked choice voting poll visualization

Visu­al­iza­tion of NPI’s July 2021 poll find­ing on ranked choice vot­ing in Seat­tle (Graph­ic by NPI)

Here’s the ques­tion we asked and the respons­es we received:

QUESTION: Seattle’s cur­rent plu­ral­i­ty vot­ing sys­tem requires peo­ple to vote for a sin­gle can­di­date in each con­test. Do you sup­port or oppose switch­ing to a ranked choice instant runoff sys­tem instead, allow­ing vot­ers to rank their favorite can­di­dates in order until a sin­gle can­di­date has a major­i­ty? Under this sys­tem, bal­lots would be count­ed in rounds where the last place can­di­dates for office would lose and the can­di­date with the most votes in the final round would win.


  • Sup­port: 66% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 42%
    • Some­what sup­port: 24%
  • Oppose: 23%
    • Some­what oppose: 7%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 16%
  • Not sure: 11%

The sur­vey these answers are from, which was con­duct­ed by Change Research for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute dur­ing last year’s local elec­tion cycle, has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence inter­val. All 617 respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was in the field from Mon­day, July 12th, 2021 through Thurs­day, July 15th, 2021 — which was one year ago this week!

Ranked choice vot­ing and approval vot­ing are both types of what’s known as alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods. As their name sug­gests, they are ways of choos­ing elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives that dif­fer from the “first past the post” sys­tem cur­rent­ly in use in Seat­tle and across Wash­ing­ton State. Under the cur­rent sys­tem, vot­ers are lim­it­ed to vot­ing for just one can­di­date. The two can­di­dates with the most votes in the first round of Wash­ing­ton’s two-part gen­er­al elec­tion advance to a runoff, and then the can­di­date with the most votes is elected.

Alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods like RCV and approval vot­ing lib­er­ate from vot­ers from being lim­it­ed to vot­ing for a sin­gle can­di­date per office in each round of voting.

Here’s an expla­na­tion of RCV from Fair­Vote:

Ranked choice vot­ing (RCV) makes democ­ra­cy more fair and func­tion­al. It works in a vari­ety of con­texts. It is a sim­ple change that can have a big impact. RCV is a way to ensure elec­tions are fair for all vot­ers. It allows vot­ers the option to rank can­di­dates in order of pref­er­ence: one, two, three, and so forth. If your vote can­not help your top choice win, your vote counts for your next choice.

Here’s an expla­na­tion of approval vot­ing from the Cen­ter For Elec­tion Sci­ence:

Approval vot­ing is a sin­gle-win­ner vot­ing method that allows vot­ers to choose any num­ber of can­di­dates. The can­di­date cho­sen the most wins. Approval Vot­ing is most often dis­cussed in the con­text of sin­gle-win­ner elec­tions, but vari­a­tions using an approval-style bal­lot can also be applied to mul­ti-win­ner (at-large) elections.

RCV is the bet­ter known of the two alter­na­tives and is enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed by a lot of pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions that work on bal­lot access and vot­ing jus­tice. A pre­sen­ta­tion devel­oped for staff to the Seat­tle City Coun­cil notes it is used in New York for pri­maries there, which would be sim­i­lar to its intend­ed usage in Seat­tle if vot­ers were to adopt the Coun­cil’s alter­na­tive to Ini­tia­tive 134.

Dur­ing pub­lic com­ment ahead of today’s vote, NPI urged the Coun­cil to pass the ordi­nance and allow vot­ers to con­sid­er RCV in addi­tion to approval voting.

We believe that vot­ers will appre­ci­ate being giv­en a choice of alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods rather than being lim­it­ed to vot­ing up or down on just one.

The Emer­ald City is an ide­al can­di­date to pilot RCV in the Pacif­ic North­west. It’s a large juris­dic­tion with a more vibrant media land­scape and a his­to­ry of civic engage­ment. Because Seat­tleites are enthu­si­as­tic about try­ing alter­na­tive vot­ing meth­ods, there is a greater like­li­hood that the vot­ing pub­lic in the state’s largest city will be sup­port­ive and recep­tive when their bal­lots change.

Seat­tle’s embrace of an alter­na­tive vot­ing method this autumn could help dis­cour­age neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing, since future can­di­dates will hope that some­one who sup­ports anoth­er can­di­date will also con­sid­er vot­ing for them. Chang­ing how we choose our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives won’t solve the prob­lem of lack of civil­i­ty in our polit­i­cal dis­course, but dur­ing a time of tremen­dous polar­iza­tion, any reforms that make cam­paigns clean­er and elec­tions more pos­i­tive is of huge value.

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One Comment

  1. It is extreme­ly bad of fair­vote to encour­age politi­cians to inter­fere in the ini­tia­tive process as states around the coun­try seek to make it hard­er to use the ini­tia­tive sys­tem for fear of RCV like reforms. This after fair­vote lob­bied against allow­ing vot­ers to use Approval vot­ing in Utah as well. Their hos­til­i­ty to oth­er vot­ing reform­ers should be questioned.
    As well it is a clear abuse of the ini­tia­tive sys­tem that thou­sands of Approval vot­ing sup­port­ers donat­ed time and mon­ey and to get it on the bal­lot, and fair­vote can lob­by their way onto the bal­lot and waste those donors mon­ey. Fair­vote should have had to run their own sig­na­ture process.
    This is exact­ly why we need to strength­en the ini­tia­tive process and lock politi­cians out of the process.

    # by Matthew Kouba :: July 15th, 2022 at 7:39 AM
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