Seattle City Council proposes ranked-choice voting for primary elections

After punting for a week on sending Initiative 134 — “approval voting” — to the voters, this week the City Council will be introducing its own alternative, “ranked-choice voting,” to potentially appear alongside it on the November ballot.

Approval voting allows voters to vote (without priority) for all candidates they view as acceptable; the two candidates with the most approval votes advance.

Ranked-choice asks voters to order the candidates by their preference, and ballots are counted in successive rounds; in each round the candidate receiving the fewest ballots is eliminated and the ballot with each vote cast for the eliminated candidate is transferred to that ballot’s next-highest ranked remaining candidate. This continues until only two candidates remain.

Here is the official description from the Council’s bill, which is sponsored by Councilmember Lewis:

Ranked choice voting shall be used in City of Seattle primary elections as soon as practicable for King County Elections. The City Council requests that King County Elections implement the provisions of this Chapter 2.18 no later than 2027 to select the top two candidates for elective offices of The City of Seattle as those offices are designated in City Charter Article XIX.

A. Nominating primaries shall be conducted using the bottoms-up method of ranked choice voting. Voters shall receive ballots that enable them to rank candidates in order of preference.  King County Elections shall count votes in rounds. In each round, the candidate who received the fewest first choices shall be eliminated and the ballot with each vote cast for the eliminated candidate shall be transferred to that ballot’s next-highest ranked remaining candidate. Counting of top-ranked candidates and elimination of the lowest-ranked candidate shall continue until two candidates remain. Each voter’s ballot shall count as a single vote for whichever of the two remaining candidates the voter has ranked higher. The final two remaining candidates shall be certified as qualified to appear on the general election ballot.

B. Only the two candidates nominated in the primary shall appear on the ballot of the general election, which shall be conducted in accordance with general law governing the election.

C. The King County Director of Elections may limit the number of candidates that voters are able to rank, provided that voters are allowed to rank at least five candidates, excluding any write-in candidates, if at least five candidates have filed.

D. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Section 2.18.020, if at the end of the candidate filing period two or fewer candidates have filed for an office subject to this Chapter 2.18, the election for that office may be conducted according to general law.

E. For any election subject to this Chapter 2.18, King County Elections will ensure that the ballot includes appropriate instructions to voters to effectuate the purposes of this Chapter 2.18, such as: “Rank candidates in the order of your choice.”

Despite the language in its own bill declaring that it rejects Initiative 134, the City Council does not have the authority to prevent it from appearing on the ballot since it received sufficient petition signatures. It only has two options:

  1. Adopt Initiative 134 into law itself, removing the need for a vote in November.
  2. Approve an alternative to appear alongside Initiative 134, giving voters a choice between approval voting and ranked-choice voting. Voters may also choose not to approve either, and leave the current system in place.

Since the City Charter does not allow the Council to vote on a bill on the same day it is introduced, the Councilmembers may wait another week before officially sending Initiative 134 to the November ballot if there is sufficient support among them for the ranked-choice voting alternative.

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