The time has come for the Washington legislature to act on ranked choice voting.
Washington lawmakers are just making their way back to Olympia for this year’s legislative session. And though they’ve explored ranked choice voting before, they now face a different opportunity than they did in years past. The question is no longer if Washington will use ranked choice voting, but rather how the state will use it. Will it be inconsistent, varying from one county to the next? Or will it follow choreographed steps based on what we’ve learned works well?
Whether or not the legislature steps in this year, people across the state are pursuing ranked choice voting (RCV) for the many benefits it offers communities. Back in 2020, plaintiffs in Yakima requested that their county implement RCV under the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), and in June 2023 a state Supreme Court case explicitly named RCV as a legal remedy for voting rights violations. Charter counties and charter cities can switch to the voting method anytime they like, and Seattle voters took advantage of the opportunity in a 2022 ballot measure. In addition, the upcoming implementation of RCV in Portland, Oregon, which partners with the same voting equipment vendor as many counties throughout the Pacific Northwest, means that voting equipment across Washington will also soon be capable of tabulating RCV, clearing a major technical hurdle.
While RCV is clearly on its way, statewide legislation could still help clarify standards for local governments and smooth the path for county auditors and administrators who might have to manage conflicting rules, ballot design, and reporting requirements across cities, ports, and school districts as more and more places look to adopt the electoral method.
For years, lawmakers have considered a “Local Options Bill,” which would allow all local jurisdictions to choose to use RCV, even without a potential voting rights violation. Last year they also took up the idea of using RCV for presidential primaries. Legislation relating to RCV has not yet made it across the finish line in Olympia, but this year the need for legislative guidance is much more urgent.
The Washington Voting Rights Act greenlights RCV
Ranked choice voting, particularly the multi-winner proportional form, has been shown to improve representation of community interests. Acknowledging this benefit, a recent Washington State court case lit the way for any local government to employ RCV in the interest of voting rights.
Passed in 2018, the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) expands on the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, intending to prevent voter exclusion in the face of polarized voting (when voters in a “protected class”—members of a race, color, or language minority group—prefer different candidates or election outcomes than the rest of the electorate). The law empowers a county, city, or special district to change its electoral method to respond to a violation or a potential violation of the law, superseding other state laws that would otherwise prevent that shift. Notably, under the WVRA, jurisdictions don’t need to be sued to implement an electoral change; they are permitted to institute a remedy even for a potential violation, in collaboration with affected community members.1The definition of a potential violation under the law is somewhat ambiguous. A governing body may need to receive notification of intent to file a suit from an affected party, or it may simply need to compile its own evidence.
In other words, a town council could proactively change from an at-large, plurality, winner-take-all election to another form of voting without going through an extensive court battle if they found that another method would improve voter representation.
And RCV is recognized as a method that would achieve that goal.
In 2020 plaintiffs in Yakima County filed suit under the WVRA and requested that the county switch to RCV to elect members of the Board of Commissioners. While their court case eventually settled with single-member districts, replacing the previous at-large representatives that underrepresented Latino communities, the request shows that advocates have considered RCV a promising option for ensuring fair representation for some time.
Then in June 2023, the state Supreme Court’s Portugal v. Franklin County decision explicitly stated that RCV (particularly the proportional representation form known as single transferable vote) is a remedy for violations of the WVRA. “Other potential remedies include, but are not necessarily limited to…single transferable or ranked choice voting.”2Other electoral changes are also listed as remedies. Full text on p. 11: “Other potential remedies include, but are not necessarily limited to, limited voting, where a voter receives fewer votes than there are candidates to elect; cumulative voting, where a voter receives as many votes as there are candidates to elect, but may cast multiple votes for a single candidate; and single transferable or ranked choice voting, where a voter ranks candidates in order of preference, and votes are transferred to lower-ranked candidates who are not elected on first-place votes if a majority is not reached.”
While RCV was already implicitly allowed under the WVRA, the recognition in the court ruling illuminates a clear path for any jurisdiction in the state to adopt it.
Constituents, advocacy groups, and elected officials are increasingly exploring where and how election reforms could improve community representation in local governments. Analysis from the national MGGG Redistricting Lab, which has modeled election methods of select governing bodies across the country, shows that Pierce County and Chelan County are among the Washington jurisdictions where RCV would be a more effective tool to help ensure representation than the current forms of county elections, which can deprive large groups of voters of a real chance to have their voices make an impact.
With the state Supreme Court’s validation of RCV and recent updates to the WVRA that make it easier for individuals and organizations to bring cases forward, we’ll likely see more and more interest in RCV as a way to improve representation in local governments across the state, particularly since adopting RCV under the WVRA gets around other state laws that prohibit local electoral changes. And as noted above, cities, counties, and other governing bodies can preemptively improve their elections even without a lawsuit.
It’s only a matter of time before more local governments implement RCV in their elections. Seattle is already doing it—without citing the WVRA.
Washington cities and counties are moving ahead to improve their elections
In November 2022 Seattle voters chose to adopt RCV for city primaries, demonstrating their interest in gaining more voice and choice in their elections, with 51 percent in support of changing the voting method and 76 percent in favor of RCV over a proposed alternative, approval voting.3After supporters of approval voting gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot, the Seattle city council decided to add RCV as an alternative. With the competing ballot measures, Seattle voters were first asked whether or not they wanted a reform, and then, in a second question, which reform they preferred. This two-tier procedure is required for statewide competing ballot measures and has been adopted for local ballot measures as well.
Seattle isn’t alone in its support of RCV. Nationwide, 50 jurisdictions in more than 20 states already use it, and the list is growing. Voters in seven jurisdictions across the United States considered RCV on their 2023 ballots and universally affirmed it. Cascadia is demonstrating leadership here, with Alaska as one of two states to employ RCV statewide (Maine is the other) and Oregon voters deciding this November if they want to join that list (beyond the counties and cities in Oregon that already use RCV).
As more and more jurisdictions throughout Cascadia and the country make the transition to RCV, appreciate the method’s benefits, and learn what works well, they are establishing best practices that Washington, too, can employ. And with the upcoming implementation of RCV in Seattle by 2027, King County Elections (with long-time election administration professional Julie Wise at the helm), which administers Seattle’s elections, will iron out many of the remaining nuances of executing RCV in the state. As Washington’s largest elections administration body, King County Elections will help pave the way for others to follow suit.
Seattle is one of the few places in Washington with the authority to adopt RCV without citing the WVRA. Under current state law, only charter counties and first class (charter) cities, such as Seattle, have the leeway to change their election laws (for primaries, anyway—they are still required to hold top-two general elections). Other Washington jurisdictions are showing interest in using that agency as well. Clark and San Juan Counties (both nonpartisan charter counties) also voted on RCV in 2022, and although neither approved it (bucking the national trend), it’s clear that many voters and leaders are ready for RCV to take the electoral stage.
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While King County Elections is setting some preliminary tracks for future administrators, state-level guidance can streamline and simplify adoption to ensure that every jurisdiction in the state understands how to take up RCV and benefits from lessons learned across the country.
Voting equipment will be RCV-ready
Elections in Washington are administered at the county level. Each of the state’s 39 counties buys voting equipment, educates voters, prints ballots, and more for all elections in all jurisdictions in that county. An initial challenge for a town, school district, or other jurisdiction that wants to implement RCV is that its county’s voting system may not yet be equipped to handle the tabulation of a ranked ballot. But thanks to Multnomah County in Oregon, Washington’s neighbor to the south, that hurdle is about to disappear.
Twenty-two of Washington’s 39 counties already have voting systems that can conduct a ranked choice election, according to analysis from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. The remaining 17 larger counties, which hold 72 percent of the state’s population, use Clear Ballot equipment, which does not currently have RCV capability.
However, Clear Ballot will soon be RCV-capable. Multnomah County, which is charged with implementing RCV in Portland by November 2024, uses Clear Ballot’s equipment. At Multnomah County’s request, Clear Ballot revised its system to accommodate RCV and has already submitted the updates for federal certification, which Oregon and Washington both require. Approval is expected in summer 2024, and when it comes through, all counties in Washington will be technically equipped to implement ranked choice elections.4 Washington also requires certification from the secretary of state, but federal certification is typically a longer process.
Then, not only will local governments in Washington be allowed to use RCV, but they will also be able to do so with the voting equipment they already have.
Two possible paths forward
If RCV is coming anyway, do Washington lawmakers need to act?
Well…yes. As RCV continues to gain popularity, we’ll likely see local governments across the state start to adopt it through a few different avenues. More pre-authorized jurisdictions will change their elections, as Seattle has. Other places, from school districts to city councils on up, will look to RCV as a remedy to potential violations of the WVRA as they aim to make their boards and commissions more representative of their communities.
If state legislators do nothing, we’ll start to see a patchwork of RCV adoption across the state. Some counties may follow whatever procedures King County develops, but others may try something new and create different forms of ballots and voter education across jurisdictions, multiple administrative processes, and a general headache for voters and the secretary of state.
Or, Washington lawmakers could pass legislation that would sidestep that potential chaos by laying out a straightforward path for implementation. Local governments would then avoid the challenges Pierce County experienced in 2008, when the county wrote new rules, bought equipment, and had a costly and confusing rollout. All that can be easily bypassed by drawing on the wealth of knowledge and examples now available.
Advocates and supportive lawmakers are currently working on a revised bill—the Washington VOICES (Voting Options, Implementation, Compliance, Education, and Standards) Act, similar to the Local Options Bill of years past—to address RCV in this session. If it becomes law, only one action would happen immediately: the secretary of state would be required to convene a work group of specific stakeholders to advise and aid the secretary in drafting rules to implement RCV and provide for voter education. While Secretary of State Steve Hobbs has expressed some skepticism about electoral reform, a dedicated work group with a variety of stakeholders would ensure that the rules align with national best practices and local context. These rules would help jurisdictions across the state coordinate ideas, formats, and procedures, smoothing implementation and creating clear guideposts to follow.
RCV does not need to be adopted in desperation, in reaction to a potential WVRA lawsuit, or with governing bodies striking out on their own. Instead, it can be thought through and planned carefully.
State legislators, it’s up to you: Disorder? Or coordination?