San Juan County is one of the few counties in Washington State that could use Rank Choice Voting due to the San Juan Charter and the fact the county is non-partisan; county council candidates do not declare a political party. What is Rank Choice Voting, and what does it mean that it will be on the ballots as a charter amendment this November?
“I realized there were a number of ways to vote, and the way we vote is the most outdated and worse way,” Lisa Ayrault, executive director for Fair Vote Washington, said. Her venture into Rank Choice Voting began as she and her 7th-grade class read a book called the mathematics of voting and elections. The book explored a variety of electoral systems and the mathematics behind how they work.
According to FairVote Washington, nearly half of the states use RCV in some capacity. Either some counties use it, it’s used in primaries, or for overseas voters, RCV has been around for some time.
Just like it sounds, with Rank Choice Voting, voters have the option to rank each candidate according to their preference rather than voting for one. As votes are tallied, the first choices are counted first. After that, second choices are tallied, and put with that particular candidate, third and fourth and on down the line until each ranked vote is also tallied. If a voter only chose their first choice, that is counted, but since no others are ranked, the ballot has no other choices tally. While this sounds complex, Ben Chapman, FairVote Washington communications, said, those who have tried it have overwhelmingly liked it and do not want to go back.
San Juan County Charter Review Commissioners realized that due to San Juan County’s unique ability to be one of the few Washington counties to use Rank Choice, created an amendment for the charter, which will be on the county’s general election ballot. According to Charter Review Commissioner Sharon Abreu, Orcas Island, should islanders pass the initiative, Rank Choice Voting will not go into effect until the state passes a bill that either gives all Washington counties the option or approves RCV state-wide.
San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley recommended the Charter Review Commissioners wait until the state adopted some form of RCV so the state would have the responsibility for writing the Washington Administrative Codes. “We would not want the county to have that burden,” Henley said. The county would be responsible for writing its own election codes should the county vote for RCV before any state legislation passed, and that is what Henley recommends against.
Henley also had concerns regarding audits. “Audits would be virtually impossible, and recounts would be all time consuming,” Henley said.
Recounts according to Ayrault, however, would require about the same time as they currently do. The ballots, she said, are put into three piles, those that support candidate A over candidate B, those that support candidate B over candidate A and those where the candidates in question are not ranked at all. “In essence, each ballot still only needs to be looked at once,” she said, adding that candidates that did not even come close would not be able to challenge the counts since they were so far behind.
Those who support RCV believe the ability to rank candidates lends to more participatory democracy.
“It is not a partisan thing,” Abreu said. “You end up getting a candidate that is really the preferred candidate of the people.”
Charter Review Commissioner Tom Starr disagrees. “It seems to subvert the clear-cut will of the people,” Starr said. Starr was in the minority who voted against the charter amendment proposal, and in his opinion stated to the review commission that he believed it obscures true debates and issue-driven dialogs among candidates and eliminates genuine binary choices between top-tier candidates. He also pointed out that Peirce county stepped into the RCV world only to reimplement the old voting system.
Abreu addressed Peirce county, noting that they had elected an official who was not the best candidate, however, her understanding was that that person would have won without RCV.
Maine has had state-wide RCV for several years with few issues according to Ayrault, and Washington presidential primates this year will also be by RCV.
The advantage for RCV, especially during primaries, is that with the high rate of candidates dropping out, RCV easily counts in the second third, and fourth rankings so that the voter’s vote still counts.
One of the biggest questions Ayrault has been asked by interested citizens is what happens if the voter does not know enough about all the candidates to rank them. Researching all the candidates is more time-consuming, but those who support RCV argue that it leads to a more educated voter, but if they do not have time, a voter is not required to rank every candidate.
“There is a lot of skepticism about the election process in general,” Chapman said, adding that part of what FairVote has is trying to educate people against misinformation. There seems to be an idea that RCV is not one person one vote, Ayrault added, but it is absolutely one person, one vote.
Starr noted that the necessary repeated computer tallying of votes will increase suspicion of computer process manipulation and further distrust of elections.
“Elections are [currently] under attack because people don’t understand how the technology works,” Henley said. “RCV would increase the confusion. We want an educated electorate that has no reason to question what we’re doing.”
To encourage people to learn more, Henley and the Elections Office have invited citizens to observe the process and ask questions. The process is also streamed live on youtube. “We know people are watching because we can see people tuned in,” Henley added.
Those that support RCV as well as those that don’t, acknowledge current distrust in elections and agree it is imperative that elections be transparent.
“People need to have confidence in the voting system, but I believe that is a completely separate issue,” Abreu said.
Ayrault noted that FairVote has been a grassroots effort. “Local volunteers are driving the effort to bring ranked-choice voting to San Juan County. It’s neighbor-to-neighbor advocacy, at the farmer’s market and the county fair. These are folks who get that communities only thrive when democracy is healthy and voters are engaged,” she said.