Ranked-choice voting could make Washington's local elections more fun

Carbon tax/pandemic relief bonds combo surfaces in the House

It’s really too bad that the ranked-choice voting system under consideration in the Legislature wouldn’t take effect in time for the already wide-open races for Seattle mayor and city council this year. Because House Bill 1156 could radically alter the conduct and outcome of local elections in Washington’s cities, counties and port districts.

Here’s how it would work. Instead of voting for just one candidate in a crowded but usually low-turnout primary in September, setting up a head-to-head race in November, voters would list their candidates in order of preference.

This system, also known as instant-runoff, gets to a winner, or winners, like this: Suppose there are five candidates. An initial count would tally only voters’ first preference. The last-place finisher would be disqualified, and his or her voters would be redistributed among the other candidates according to their second preference, and so on until one candidate got to more than 50 percent.  

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, would allow local jurisdictions to choose to hold a ranked-choice primary to narrow a large field to five for the general election, or eliminate the primary altogether. Any race with five or fewer candidates would not have a primary. They could also choose to hold their elections the old-fashioned way, but where’s the fun in that?

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that it drives greater voter turnout and better enfranchises traditionally marginalized groups. It also theoretically encourages a more congenial style of campaigning, because candidates would want their opponents’ supporters to like them well enough to rank them next. 

“This bipartisan bill presents us with an opportunity to nurture democracy,” Harris-Talley, D-Seattle said at a hearing on the bill in the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee on Monday.  “This simple change gives people more power to be heard.” 

Harris-Talley’s bill has 26 co-sponsors in the House, and is already scheduled for a committee vote on Thursday, indicating it will still be alive after Monday’s policy-committee cutoff, the first of a series of procedural deadlines.   

For an entertaining thought exercise about how the bill might work, let’s look back at the 2017 race for Seattle mayor, eventually won by Jenny Durkan. Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney and the daughter of the late state House Speaker Martin Durkan, ran as the consensus choice of the city’s establishment,1 and won the primary, but with only 28 percent of the vote. Urbanist Cary Moon, partly thanks to some weirdness in the endorsement process at The Stranger,2 wound up squeaking past Nikkita Oliver for the second slot in the general election. 


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Moon turned out to be an abysmal campaigner, and Durkan cruised to an easy victory, which turned out to be a lesson in being careful what you wish for. Nearing the end of a bruising first term, she’s decided not to seek reelection.  

But here’s the thing: There were 21 candidates in that primary, including four recognizable names who finished out of the money. Taken together, even the 15 candidates that almost nobody had ever heard of got more than 18,000 votes, or about 10 percent of the total cast. Much was made at the time of the fact that more than 60 percent of voters had backed a candidate to the left of Durkan.3

Let’s crank up the Wayback Machine to consider a ranked-choice scenario: In a primary winnowing the field to five candidates, the 30,000 or so votes cast for the other 16 would have been redistributed, likely yielding a November field of Durkan, Moon, Oliver, state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, although you could make an argument that former Mayor Mike McGinn, who ran sixth, might have snuck in.

The Durkan-Moon race was a snooze-fest featuring two middle-aged white women of significant wealth. Our hypothetical five-way cage match would have featured four women, two candidates of color, one candidate in her early 30s and another in her early 40s. Oliver in particular was building a potent youth movement on the left, and it’s not clear her supporters found much appeal in either Moon or Durkan. 

There’s no way to predict who would have won, but at least three of those candidates would have run aggressively anti-establishment campaigns, and it’s unlikely their supporters would have picked Durkan second. In any case, it would have been a far different campaign.

As the bill currently stands, the first election in which ranked-choice voting could be used will be 2024, so we’ll have to wait at least that long for such an entertaining throw-down.

Carbon tax/pandemic relief bonds combo surfaces in the House

That proposal to impose a big carbon tax and use the money for a massive pandemic relief bonding package was officially filed in the House on Tuesday. The Observer wrote about the Washington STRONG Act back in December when the idea was initially floated. 

As we noted last month, it’s one of the ideas competing with the cap-and-trade proposal proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and is becoming the favored carbon-pricing option of the progressive wing of the Democratic majorities in the Legislature.   

The plan sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, and Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, envisions maximizing the amount of money such a tax could pump into the pandemic-battered economy by using the money back bonds that would raise $16 billion. As we noted in December, among the largest employers in both Lekanoff’s and Shewmake both’s districts are major oil refineries, which would bear the brunt of the tax. Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, who represents the same district as Lekanoff, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. 


Interesting stuff from other reporters: 

Pushback from an unlikely corner could doom electric car bill

Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times had the story on Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office opining that an aggressive bill to essentially ban the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2030 might run afoul, weirdly, of the Clean Air Act. The gist: Only California is allowed to set its own emissions restrictions under the federal law. The Golden State plans to ban the sale of cars with internal combustion engines starting in 2035. Other states can go as fast as California, but not faster.  House Transportation Chair Jake Fey told Hal the bills are unlikely to progress.

A cautionary tale on sole-source contracting 

Kevin Schofield over at Seattle City Council Insight has the latest on the troubled Black Brilliance Research Project. Kevin likes to get down in the weeds, so feel free to follow him in for the details. But it starts with the Seattle City Council bending over backwards to squeeze a $3 million no-bid contract through a loophole in the city’s rules. As you might expect, things haven’t gone that well since.


A lesson on the timely feeding of dogs


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1

Your correspondent, then a strategic communications consultant, wrote a $250 check to Durkan’s campaign.

2

As it was told to me, three factions within The Stranger initially created an impasse. Older, more established staffers wanted state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, while an equal number of younger writers argued for Oliver’s insurgent candidacy. A single holdout implacably backed Moon, who had been a darling of The Stranger a decade earlier for her advocacy against replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Ultimately, the Farrell faction went over to Moon, who won the formal endorsement. The dissenters wrote an impassioned response. Moon prevailed by fewer than 1,200 votes. 

3

This fact caused your correspondent to make an ill-advised bet on Moon. He got long odds, but still regrettable in retrospect.