Approval Voting on Olympia, WA


Here’s a good story on our efforts in the Olympian.

And an animated video segment in the Tacoma News Tribune.

To cut to the chase, Olympia city officials and our county auditor (who previously oversaw the Ranked Choice Voting debacle in Pierce County to our north) believe this would be illegal, because they’re treating lack of express permission as prohibition. I argue to the contrary in this blog post.

But I think that regardless of what the law literally says, this will all be about a judge’s subjective views on the intent. And that could go either way.

Here’s the money quote:

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.

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.


Paraphrasing some things I’ve heard from people more knowledgable in the law than me:

It sounds like there is a legal challenge brewing, and the timing will be swift. Submitting a strong legal briefing in the contemplated proceedings may be advisable.

The result of the contemplated proceeding, which presumably will be in Thurston County superior court, will probably be significantly persuasive to a King County superior court judge in a future case, if there is a similar challenge to a Seattle initiative.

There is also the potential for an appellate ruling, including if the city loses initially and cares enough to keep fighting. And this has real potential to go up to the Washington Supreme Court, given the significance of the issue and the lack of clarifying precedent.