Seattle political reformers could learn from Portland
A “multi-everything” city like Seattle needs proportional voting, not reform of the primary
Election reform is on the ballot in Seattle this fall. Dueling ballot measures that seek to change how Seattleites vote in local primary elections has potential to result in a modest improvement. Political reform is hard work, and activists deserve praise for their efforts. But I wonder if either ballot measure will do enough to truly “reform” the city’s elections?
Voters will choose between Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), which allows voters to rank their ballots, 1, 2, 3 in an “instant runoff” to determine which candidates have majority support; and Approval Voting (AV), which allows voters to “approve” of as many candidates as they like. Voters also will be able to retain the status quo by voting “no” on a first question asking if they want any reform.
The goal of both RCV and AV is to allow voters to pick their favorite candidates without having the election results go haywire due to spoiler candidates splitting the votes of like-minded voters. That’s a worthy, but fairly modest, goal, in part because it only affects the primary election, which is a preliminary round.
Then the top two finishers face off in a November runoff, but neither of these proposals would impact that final and more important election in November. For that, you would have to redesign Seattle’s winner-take-all elections into a system of proportional representation.
Portland, OR has taken a major step towards doing just that, with a ballot measure this November blazing a real reform path to elect its city council by proportional representation. That’s really the best method for fostering diverse representation and a sense of shared community in “multi-everything” cities like Seattle and Portland.
So both RCV and AV in the primary may amount to not much more than just slapping another aspect on the hodge-podge system of Seattle elections, which already are the result of many, many decades of changes. Let’s take stock of where the situation is today.
The city has a strong mayor.
The nine-member council are elected from seven single-member districts and two at-large positions.
There are mandatory runoffs with the primary vote held in August and the runoff in November. Even if a candidate wins a majority among a field of candidates in the first election, there is still a second election where the top-two vote getters face off.
Candidates’ party affiliation is not printed on the ballot. It’s the classic non-partisan election.
There is partial public financing of elections.
Corporations with over 5 percent foreign ownership are not allowed to buy independent expenditures. State law requires disclosure of the top-five contributors to an independent expenditure.
Unfortunately reformers often do not take a holistic view of elections. Implementing RCV or AV only in a primary will hardly reform the shortcomings of the current election system. Read Steven Hill’s latest article celebrating 30 years of FairVote’s advocacy — which paints a picture of the modern electoral reform movement through his experience. Hill says lesson number one is,
Political reform is opportunity driven. There has to be a problem that you have identified, and for which you have the unique solution. “Problem plus solution,” that is the formula for successful political reform.
So what is the problem with Seattle’s mandatory primary elections? AV advocate Logan Bowers told the Seattle Times,
Right now candidates frequently win the primary with between 20% and 30% of the vote. So that means seven or eight out of 10 voters didn’t want that candidate, but they become one of only two choices in the general election.
Bowers is certainly not taking the holistic view here. He zeros in so closely on a single aspect of elections that he misses the dynamic of runoff elections — where voters, whose favorite lost in the first round, should coalesce around their second choice in the second round of voting.
This is the point of a runoff election and AV, or RCV for that matter, will not really make much of a change in Seattle elections. The problem of vote splitting in the first round among like-minded voters could be due to the lack of party affiliation on the ballot. Party nominations — which should be paid for by the parties themselves — are a winnowing process before any ballot is even printed.
My point on parties is an example of the holistic view addressing a single aspect of an election system without taking into account other integrated aspects. Adding real party labels to the ballot would result in other big changes in the electoral dynamics that could live up to the word “reform.” Ballots with real partisan cues can incentivize a move away from consultant driven, big money politics (I will expand on this point in a future post).
While neither of the proposals on the ballot this fall will greatly “reform” Seattle’s elections, there is a chance that, if they both lose, the impact will not be benign. That’s because political elites likely will use this as an excuse to set back future attempts for meaningful reform.
Election reformers have not been able to pass substantive reform like a local option bill for ranked choice voting through the state legislature. That shows how powerful status quo elites are. So if these ballot measures turn into a slugfest between RCV and AV advocates, that will provide nothing more than nice entertainment for the status quo politicians. And it could also damage future reform efforts when the elites keep repeating “They just voted down Ranked Choice Voting and Approval Voting in Seattle.”
Reformers, thank you for your hard work. But my advice is to put your best foot forward, and leave the attacks on each other alone. Otherwise, you may end up undermining future reform efforts.
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