Politics & Government

Campaign to bring new voting style to local elections faces first hurdle: Is it legal?

What is approval voting?

A group wants to bring approval voting to Olympia, but a local elections official says that would require changing state law.
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A group wants to bring approval voting to Olympia, but a local elections official says that would require changing state law.

Voters in the upcoming Olympia mayoral primary will pick one candidate from a list of five, with the top two finishers going on to November’s general election.

But what if you could pick two or three or four candidates you liked?

A group called Olympia Approves has launched a campaign to bring a new style of voting called approval voting to city elections. In such a system, voters choose all the candidates they approve of and the candidate with the most votes wins.

The group hopes to get a measure on the April 2020 special election ballot.

The group argues that the current voting system doesn’t let voters express their preferences on all candidates, and that approval voting eliminates the risk of a spoiler, where one candidate draws votes away from a similar candidate to the benefit of a third.

Fargo, North Dakota last year became the first U.S. jurisdiction to adopt approval voting. An effort is now underway to bring it to St. Louis, Missouri.

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“Our claim is that Fargo now has the best democratic system in the world, which is bizarre,” said Clay Shentrup, a campaign organizer.

Shentrup, who lives in Olympia, co-founded the group Counted that advocates for election reform at the state level. He said the hope is to use Olympia to make the case for approval voting in county or statewide elections.

But before voters can decide, another, more fundamental question needs to be settled: Is approval voting even legal in Washington?

“It’s not. There would have to be legislation to allow a jurisdiction to use alternative (voting systems),” said Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall, who oversees local elections.

She points to a state election law that says, “Nothing in this chapter may be construed to mean that a voter may cast more than one vote for candidates for a given office.”

Shentrup argues that language does not prohibit it.

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Sample ballots using the current system and approval voting. Courtesy Olympia Approves

In the coming weeks, the city of Olympia will ask a Thurston County judge to determine if the concept is legal, said City Manager Steve Hall. He said the city does not have a position on approval voting, but holding a special election can cost thousands of dollars.

“We don’t think it’s legal,” he said. “And if it’s not a legal topic, why put our citizens through it?”

There was an attempt this session at giving jurisdictions more options when its comes to voting. House Bill 1722 would have allowed ranked-choice voting in local elections, though not in statewide or federal races.

With ranked-choice voting, which has been adopted in several large U.S. cities and Maine, voters rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate gets more than half the vote on the first count, the candidate with the fewest number of first-place votes is eliminated and his or her votes go to the candidate their voters ranked second.

Washington has a spotty history with ranked-choice voting. Pierce County’s three-year experiment with it ended in 2009, with critics calling it confusing and costly since the county spent millions on implementation.

HB 1722, which was limited to ranked-choice voting, didn’t pass.

Shentrup argues ranked-choice voting does not eliminate the spoiler effect. Approval voting also is easier to understand, he said, and would not require new voting infrastructure.

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