Why the wave of voting reform measures in the Northwest?
Some advocates hope voting changes could help populist third-party candidates – others hope they’ll help moderates.
It’s a Tuesday night and there’s a small party going on in a back room of the Pike Place Market. Take a left at the pig statue, go up some stairs, through a hallway and you’ll find yourself in a little library full of more than a dozen people eating pizza.
It’s a gathering of the most committed members and leaders of Fair Vote Washington, a group pushing for a big change to elections.
They’re celebrating years of hard work that might finally pay off. This November, Portland, Seattle, and three counties in Washington and Oregon are considering ranked choice voting.
These proposals vary area to area – Seattle’s ranked choice looks different than Portland’s, and Seattle will consider ranked choice voting alongside a thing called "approval voting" – but they all reflect a dissatisfaction with who elections choose.
Take one of the partygoers at Pike Place – Patricia Raftery. The story of how she discovered Fair Vote is a great one for parties: She was chasing an escaped peacock at the Mill Creek Festival and ran past a guy at the Fair Vote booth, who told her which way the peacock went. Forty minutes later, with the peacock caught, she came back and said “Hey, that ranked choice voting thing. I’ve heard about it. Tell me more.”
Here’s roughly how he explained ranked choice to her: You pick your favorite candidate as #1, but you also get to pick your second favorite and third and etc., if you want. If your favorite doesn’t get enough votes, your second favorite vote could still count.
Raftery wasn’t sold immediately, but when she attended an info session and learned more about it, she began to think it could solve her misgivings about the two-party system.
“The two major candidates, I almost never liked either of them, and there would almost always be a third or fourth candidate that I really liked,” Raftery said. “But when you looked at the numbers, you might as well just throw your ballot away. But with ranked choice voting, that wouldn't be the case.”
Nationwide frustration with both the Republican and Democratic parties is at its highest in recent years. This year, the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey showing people who have unfavorable views of both parties is at 27%. In 1994, when they began asking that question, it was just 6%.
In Oregon and Washington specifically, a lot of third party candidates are running this year. While few are likely to win, some are popular enough they’re making races tighter for Democrats and Republicans.
In Oregon, independent Betsy Johnson has split enough votes away from Democrat Tina Kotek that the election for governor could result in a Republican win for the first time since the 1980s. In Washington’s Secretary of State race, unaffiliated candidate Julie Anderson beat four Republican candidates in the primary and is polling well against a Democrat, Steve Hobbs, in the general election.
But two-party frustrations don’t account for everything. In Seattle and Portland, for instance, the new voting methods would apply to nonpartisan local races. Those races are often crowded, and fewer voters participate in them – so you have less participation and more choices.
At the same time the ranked choice people are eating pizza, across town Logan Bowers is getting ready to debate one of them. Bowers is a proponent of approval voting, which instead of ranking, asks voters simply to choose each candidate who they think is acceptable – a sort of "check all that apply" approach. The candidates who the most voters approved of would go to the general election.
Bowers is one of the approval voting campaign’s leaders. He started digging into approval voting after he ran for city council in 2019. He was one of 55 candidates citywide and didn’t get past the primary.
“When you have a field that big, there’s going to be a lot of overlap between the candidates. Two candidates can split the vote, and cause both to lose, even though their values are popular,” Bowers said.
There’s definitely dissatisfaction with who emerges from these crowded, pick-one local primaries. In liberal Seattle last year, voters had to choose between to very different candidates for city attorney: a Republican pushing to prosecute low level offenses and a progressive candidate who supported abolishing police, jails and prisons. The Republican won.
In Portland’s mayoral race in 2020, a somewhat unpopular moderate mayor was able to win in part because progressives split the vote between the primary winner and a write-in candidate.
These and other recent outcomes are signs of voter dissatisfaction, said Mark A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
“The thing about voting reforms is, different people can kind of see that as a solution to their particular problem,” Smith said. “And even if it might not be. But it's like, ‘hey, you know, something's not working. Hey, why don't we try this thing out?’”
Some advocates hope these voting changes could help populist third-party candidates – others hope they’ll help moderates.
Alaska implemented ranked choice voting this summer and made big headlines when a Democrat won over Republican Sarah Palin in a congressional race. The reason why? The Republican vote was split between Palin and Republican Nick Begich – but enough of Begich’s voters put the Democrat as their second choice, rather than Palin, that the Democrat won.
“Palin had her constituency. There are some people who loved her,” Smith said. “There's also a lot of people out there who really can't stand her.”
Smith himself does plan on voting for ranked choice. But there are plenty of skeptics and organized campaigns against it in both Portland and Seattle.
Sandeep Kaushik is a Seattle political consultant and he plans on voting against either change.
“I do think the hope is, well, boy, if we just make this tweak to how we do our elections, more people who agree with us are going to get elected all of a sudden,” Kaushik said.
Defenders of voting reforms say, we know it’s not going to change things overnight. But maybe over time.