Ranked Choice Voting in Washington State: Then and Now
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a simple update to the voting process that gives voters the option to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference. RCV has been adopted by a growing number of states, counties, and cities across the US with overwhelmingly positive reception by both voters and local election officials across the political spectrum. RCV addresses several problems with the current election process and has bipartisan support.
In the current 2021–2022 Washington legislative session, HB 1156 has been introduced with bipartisan support that offers local county and city officials the choice (but does not force) to adopt RCV for county, city, or other local elections to help increase representation and voter participation in local elections. RCV has been previously used once in Washington State in Pierce County in 2008, although later abandoned. This article will review that prior experience and outline why current information and successful RCV examples from other areas across the US validates why Washington State is reconsidering RCV.
The US Election in 2020 was the most chronicled and scrutinized election in US history at federal, state, and local levels. Animosity between different parties and candidates was perhaps higher than ever seen in recent memory. Attack ads and rhetoric attempting to demonize opponents were common. For a particular voter in an election with more than two candidates, if the voter believes their most preferred candidate cannot win, the voter may be tempted to vote for the most favored viable candidate as the “lesser of two evils”. ‘Spoiler” candidates (Situations where the “spoiler” candidate’s presence in the election draws votes away from a major candidate with similar politics, thereby causing a strong opponent of both to win) were present in several races in 2020 and impacted election outcomes.¹ Ranked Choice Voting helps address these challenges.
Ranked Choice Voting has been successfully used in the US for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Alaska and Maine and for local elections in more than 20 US cities². RCV has been shown to promote more choices for voters to choose from, encourages more equitable and diverse representation that better reflects the population, and encourages more civil campaigns. Let us explore the positive impact RCV can have on local elections, and how the previous concerns noted in Pierce County are outdated.
How does Ranked Choice Voting Help?
There are several key benefits to adopting Ranked Choice Voting in local elections.
Ranked Choice Voting encourages more civility to our campaigns and encourages productive discussions rather than bitter partisanship. Our current, deeply negative campaign season makes it mentally taxing to stay engaged. More positive campaigns under RCV helps foster higher engagement and participation in politics. While negative campaigning is more challenging to overcome for national and statewide elections, local elections within the scope of HB 1156 have shown an increase in positive campaigning from use of RCV. RCV inspires candidates to reach out to all voters, including those outside of their usual base. When candidates must consider not only campaigning to be voter’s 1st choice, but also 2nd and 3rd etc., this has been demonstrated to discourage attack ads or denigrating opponents. There is published research supporting this point for local elections:
- A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney finds that in debates for ranked choice voting races, civility was improved with candidates substituting positive or neutral words for negative words.
- A 2018 exit poll of Santa Fe voters found that 67% of respondents believed the tone of their first mayoral election with RCV was more positive than prior mayoral elections. Only 3% of respondents said it was more negative.
- A 2016 report explores how RCV might reduce legislative polarization by allowing space for moderate, conservative, liberal, and other voters to elect candidates in proportion to their overall numbers in the electorate.
- The Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University conducted two polls — one in 2013 and another in 2014 — that explore the impact of RCV on city elections in the United States. In both surveys, more respondents in cities using RCV reported candidates spent less time criticizing opponents than in cities that did not use RCV. More respondents in cities using RCV reported fewer negative campaigns than in cities that did not use RCV.
Ranked Choice Voting promotes having more choices and greater diversity on the ballot. Voters can vote for who they really want without worrying about ‘throwing away their vote’ or having to think about electability. Voters get one or more backup choices in case their first choice cannot win. The allows voters to rank their preferences for the candidates that best represents their perspective, instead of feeling pressure to vote for one of just two candidates. RCV has been shown to result in more women & minorities running for office and winning. It is a nonpartisan issue and can create opportunities for better representation that reflects the communities elected offices serve such as Republican voters in traditional Democrat jurisdictions or vice versa. Research supporting this point:
- A 2020 study by RepresentWomen finds better overall electoral outcomes for women and people of color in jurisdictions that have implemented RCV. Over the last decade, women have won 48% of all municipal ranked choice elections. As of April 2020, nearly half of all mayors (46%) and 49% of all city council seats decided by RCV are held by women.
- A 2019 report on racial minority voting rights shows that people of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV than under the prior system, and that people of color win office more often since the adoption of RCV.
- A 2018 paper by Sarah John, Haley Smith, and Elizabeth Zack shows that California cities which adopted RCV saw an increase in the percentage of candidates of color running for office and increases in the probability of female candidates and female candidates of color winning office. (The author refers to the reform as “the alternative vote” or “AV” which is synonymous with ranked choice voting.) Learn more from this write-up by author Sarah John.
Prior Use of Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County
Ranked Choice Voting is not new in Washington State. During the 2005 Legislative Session HB 1447 was enacted establishing a five-year Instant Runoff Voting (IRV is another term synonymous with RCV) pilot project conducted by the Office of the Secretary of State to examine the use of IRV as a local option for nonpartisan offices in any qualifying city. As a result, qualifying cities could adopt RCV for nonpartisan offices. The pilot project and related amendatory provisions relating to HB 1447 expired July 1, 2013. In November 2006 the voters of Pierce County approved Charter Amendment 3³ which provides that the election of all county officials, except judges and the prosecuting attorney, be conducted using RCV. The first time RCV was utilized was the 2008 general election. In 2009, voters approved a revised Charter Amendment 3 to no longer allow IRV in Pierce County. Several factors were noted from a variety of sources as why RCV was rescinded in Pierce County, let us examine those to see if those reasons remain of concern in 2021.
CLAIM: Voters did not like RCV
In the 2008 election, Pierce County was only 1 of 2 counties in Washington that did not exclusively use mail in ballots. A survey was included to those voters that did use mail-in/absentee ballots, and of the 90,738 survey responses 63% answered “No” to the question “Did you like this new Ranked Choice Voting method?”. Based on that response, The Pierce County Council placed a charter amendment on the 2009 general election ballot⁴ asking voters if RCV should end. Proposed Charter amendment 3 repealing RCV in Pierce County was approved by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin. Let us explore why that might be and how that compares to what voters say in other areas that have adopted RCV:
The 2008 survey does not tell a complete story:
- No data on “why” voters did not like RCV: Unfortunately, the answers to the survey question on why voters did not like RCV was not reported and reported as not available in response to a 2018 Freedom of Information request.
- Unreliable survey methodology: Subjects were not selected at random. People responding self-selected from those voters using mail-in/absentee ballots or who choose to respond at polling places and could return it if they wanted. Social science research suggests folks with negative experiences are highly likely to give feedback while far fewer people with a positive experience share theirs.
2008 Pierce County election had issues impacting voter satisfaction:
- Voting took too long: In 2008 Pierce County, the election technology vendor required use of two separate ballots, one for RCV and another for non RCV contests and this generated voter unhappiness. Dual ballots, coupled with reducing the number of polling places, contributed to long lines at polling places on election day. With improvements made since 2008, many election technology vendors today no longer have constraints requiring separate ballots. RCV contests do require a larger area on a ballot to record voters’ ranked choices, and any ballot with many contests (ranked choice or otherwise) can potentially require multiple pages.
Across the United States, voters express positive support for RCV:
- Maine used RCV for the first time for statewide elections in 2018. An exit poll after their November 2018 general election showed 60.9% of respondents in favor of keeping RCV or expanding use of RCV.
- 94% of Santa Fe voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their first use of RCV in 2018, as reported in an exit poll by FairVote New Mexico.
- In Minneapolis in 2017, 66% of voters reported support for continued use of RCV, compared with only 16 percent who said they do not support its use and 18 percent who were unsure.
- In 2020, Many states have expanded support for RCV across geographic and partisan lines
CLAIM: “Top-Two” primaries remove the need for RCV
In 2004 Washington adopted a “pick-a-party” primary process. Many voters did not like being limited to voting for candidates from only one political party. The “pick-a-party” primary process was in place in 2006 when Pierce County voters chose to adopt RCV. However, in 2008 the US Supreme Court reinstated I-872 that eliminated the pick-a-party primary and adopted a “top-two” primary election process. In a “top two” primary the two candidates who won the most votes in the primary, regardless of which party they belonged to, advance to the general election. In the general election, voters could vote for whichever candidates they preferred, which could be perceived as eliminating the need for RCV. While the “top-two” approach is an improvement over the “pick-a-party” method, there are additional benefits of RCV over “top-two”:
- “Top Two” can eliminate a party from being represented in a general election: The Lieutenant Governor race in Washington in 2020 had 11 candidates in the primary, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats and 2 Libertarians, that resulted in 2 Democratic candidates selected (Heck/Liias) in the “top two” primary, which left the Republican party having to campaign using the write-in method for their candidate. In 2016, there were 5 candidates for Treasurer of Washington, 2 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Although the three Democrats received 51.6% of the primary vote, the Republicans finished first and second and made it to the general election. These are examples of “spoiler candidates” in primary elections and would not happen with use of RCV.
- Different voters participate in two elections: Two-round runoff elections result in a different group of voters participating in the final round than the first one. Primary elections often have fewer voters overall compared to general elections, and primary voters may be less representative of the populations they represent. Under RCV, the same group of voters can participate in every round. Some voters, however, may only rank some of the candidates. If each candidate ranked is eliminated during the count, such a ballot becomes inactive. Even when considering the drop-off in voters between rounds in an RCV election, RCV still outperforms two-round runoff elections both in final round turnout and representativeness of the final round.
- “Top Two” nullifies minorities from electing a candidate of their choosing: Yakima County has ongoing review of concerns that the current “Top Two” method violates the Voting Rights Act. A commissioned study has identified RCV as the best alternative for Yakima County.
CLAIM: RCV was costly to implement
RCV is a change from the current process that voters and election officials are accustomed to and equipped for, so some costs to change are expected. RCV offers an opportunity for costs savings as well, so any complete assessment must assess both costs and savings. In the 2008 General Election in Pierce County, it’s noted that RCV cost about half of the total election budget (~$1.6M of $3.3M overall) with roughly half of the RCV costs spent on one time startup vs. ongoing costs. It is worth noting that 2008 was early in the adoption of RCV in the United States, so many of the costs incurred at that time can be attributed to Pierce County being amongst the “first adopters” of RCV. Today with more widespread adoption of RCV elsewhere in the country, costs would be expected to be much less. Let us compare costs of adopting RCV in other parts of the country to the Pierce County 2008 election.
2008 Pierce County election had several factors contributing to high costs. Some of the specific decisions on how RCV was deployed in 2008 impacted both the cost and negatively contributed to voter perception of RCV. In 2017, Kristen Eberhard provides a good, detailed analysis of Pierce County 2008 RCV costs. An updated summary of the key points on costs:
- Voting equipment costs: In 2008 many election technology vendors were not capable of supporting RCV, but many now do. A November 2020 assessment of voting systems certified for use in Washington⁵ was conducted by the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. Based on 2020 data from Verified Voting, the assessment reported 22 of the 39 counties in Washington use voting systems capable of RCV elections. The remaining 17 counties (including King, Pierce, Snohomish, and others) would require their current election technology vendors to add RCV capabilities, and to have both the Federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and Washington Secretary of State office to certify such systems. Depending upon the specific current voting systems in use within each county, some can adopt RCV without additional costs while others will need to procure budget for updated certified voting systems.
- Single vs. Multiple Ballots: In 2008 Pierce County, the election technology vendor required use of two separate ballots, one for RCV and another for non RCV contests. This generated increased costs for printing, mailing, and staffing. With improvements made since 2008, many election technology vendors today no longer have constraints requiring separate ballots.
- Pierce County Overspent in 2008: In 2008, RCV was relatively new to voting technology vendors and voters. More recent budget forecasts from other parts of the country are significantly less as compared to 2008.
- Did not count savings opportunities: While Pierce County still had primary elections in 2008, RCV offers an opportunity to eliminate primary elections for local races and provide savings to both local counties responsible for administering such elections but also to political parties and candidates by only having to spend on one campaign vs. two. Not all election costs are incurred by the local election departments, reducing primary and general elections to a single election for other government entities like Port Commission, Parks Departments, and School Boards can also save money.
Other areas implemented RCV at much lower costs vs. 2008 Pierce County: With increased use of RCV across the US, all major election technology providers now support RCV. Accepted best practices guidance, that did not exist in 2008, helps local election officials efficiently implement RCV in their areas today. Examples of RCV costs from across the US, all at significantly under what Pierce County spent in 2008:
- In Washington in 2021, fiscal notes for HB 1156 outlines statewide costs and how local election jurisdictions can reduce their costs by use of HB 1156.
- San Francisco in 2004 outlined how RCV will save $15 million over 10 years.
- A 2020 review of RCV costs in Bloomington documents how an early study of RCV costs by the MIT Election Lab study is not applicable to all jurisdictions.
- North Carolina in 2017 reports an opportunity to save significant election costs by adopting RCV.
- Maine forecast in 2014 statewide costs to implement RCV that were well under what Pierce County spent in 2008. In 2018, Maine spent $100,000 for their first-ever statewide RCV election in June of 2018.
- Eastpointe MI, Payson UT, and Vineyard UT all implemented RCV for the first-time in 2019 for *no increased costs* above their current levels.
CLAIM: Political parties did not like outcomes
In the 2008 Pierce County general election, 7 contests used RCV and 4 of those 7 had candidate who received a majority in the first round and were not subject to voters subsequent choices. Of the remaining 3 contests, one narrowly missed receiving a 1st round majority and the other 2 have received criticism for different reasons:
2008 Pierce County Assessor — Treasurer Contest: In 2008, concurrent with Pierce County’s first usage of RCV, the Assessor-Treasurer office was for the first time ever changed to a non-partisan position and used RCV in the general election. 6 candidates ran for that office, and Dale Washam (a highly controversial person by many accounts, but with high name recognition amongst voters and high vote counts in prior contests) was elected. Some elected officials and other party members are quick to cite his election as a failure of RCV, he actually received the most votes over other candidates. The oft repeated claim that he was “everyone’s 3rd choice” is not factually accurate.
2008 Pierce County Executive Contest: In 2008, the County Executive contest used RCV in the general election. 4 candidates ran for that office, and Pat McCarthy was elected. However, Shawn Burney had the most first-place votes in the first round, but not at true majority. When the 2 candidates receiving the least votes were eliminated McCarthy was the winner. Burney, supported by the Republican party, lost after initially leading frustrating his party and supporters. Calvin Goings was another candidate formally supported by the Democratic party over McCarthy, who was eliminated in the 2nd round. This result left both parties frustrated in the outcomes for this race.
Ranked Choice Voting has been gaining broad support from an increasing number of scholars, election reform experts, political leaders, and others. Ranked Choice Voting contributes to more civility, more diversity, and more choices on ballots. Voters understand and support RCV when it’s been adopted across the county. RCV offer benefits over “top two” primary or run-off elections.
Those with long memories may remember how RCV was initially attempted in Pierce County in 2008. A closer examination of the details why it was abandoned, review of changes in the world since that time illustrate why such concerns are no longer valid. Increasing parts of the United States are adopting Ranked Choice Voting. In the 2021–2022 Washington legislative session, please support HB 1156 that offers local election authorities the choice to adopt Ranked Choice Voting. HB 1156 does not force anyone to use RCV, it simply offers the choice.
¹ Collins/Gideon/Savage in Maine, Howe/Sullivan/Gross in Alaska, and Graham/Harrison/Bledson in South Carolina.
² Including Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Oakland, California; Berkeley, California; San Leandro, California; Takoma Park, Maryland; St. Paul, Minnesota; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Portland, Maine; Las Cruces, New Mexico; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and New York City, New York.
³ See Page 14 of the 2006 Voters Pamphlet for full text of the measure.
⁴ See page 23 of the 2009 Voters Pamphlet for full text of the measure.
⁵ The complete list of certified systems in Washington state can be found here