To its supporters, ranked choice voting gives voters more choices and improves democracy. To its detractors, it’s costly and confusing.
Now, even as Pierce County voters prepare to use it a second time on the general election ballot, they must decide whether to keep or scrap ranked choice voting.
Proposed Charter Amendment 3 would repeal the voting system, also known as “instant runoff voting.” If it passes, it would mark a quick end to an idea that most voters embraced just three years ago.
Ranked choice voting advocates say that would be a mistake. They say Pierce County hasn’t given the system a fair shot. And they say county elections officials didn’t do enough to make it successful in its first run last year.
Given the chance, they say it works.
“You get more people running for office,” said Kelly Haughton, a ranked choice voting supporter leading the campaign against the proposed amendment to the county charter. “You get more ideas discussed.”
Opponents say it’s a flawed experiment that costs too much and isn’t worth the aggravation many voters say it has caused them.
“It’s a frustrating system for people in general,” said County Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Bonney Lake.
‘EASY AS 1-2-3’
Pierce County voters approved ranked choice voting in 2006 in response to the state’s “pick a party” primary system. That system forced voters to state a party preference to participate in the primary election and limited them to voting for candidates of only that party.
Pierce County voters responded by approving a system that eliminated the primary altogether.
Ranked choice voting is like a primary and general election rolled into one. Instead of narrowing the field in a primary, voters consider all of the candidates for executive, council, assessor-treasurer and auditor in the general election.
Voters rank up to three candidates, in order of preference. If you love Candidate A, like Candidate B and can live with Candidate C, you’d rank them in that order. Supporters like to say it makes voting “as easy as 1-2-3.”
But counting the votes can be complicated.
If one candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, it’s over. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. If that candidate was your first choice, your vote goes to your second choice. The votes are then recounted.
If your second choice is eliminated, your vote goes to your third choice. The process of elimination continues until someone gets a majority of votes.
That’s how it worked in last year’s county executive race.
The race featured four well-known candidates: County Councilmen Shawn Bunney and Calvin Goings, Tacoma City Councilman Mike Lonergan and county Auditor Pat McCarthy.
It took three rounds of counting and more than two weeks to determine a winner. First Lonergan and then Goings were eliminated, and their supporters’ second and sometimes third choices were counted. In the end, McCarthy edged out Bunney to win the race.
Even before the executive race was decided, a new debate over ranked choice voting began. Many voters said it was too complicated. Elections officials said confusion over ranked choice voting contributed to long lines on Election Day.
Supporters said the long lines were because of a historic turnout and McCarthy’s decision to close polling places in recent years. And they said her office didn’t prepare enough for the vote count and didn’t do enough to educate voters.
It’s a debate that continues today.
Opponents say voters are frustrated with ranked choice voting. They cite an unscientific survey conducted by the auditor’s office last year, in which nearly 57,000 voters said they didn’t like the system.
They also say the system is too costly. By the end of this year Pierce County will have spent $2.3 million on ranked choice voting. Though one-time costs such as software account for much of that, another $500,000 is budgeted for next year.
“It’s a very expensive way of running elections,” said Bunney, who is chairing a committee that supports repealing the voting system.
Opponents also say ranked choice voting doesn’t promote informed choices by voters because they have to pick from a long list of candidates.
There’s no primary election, so voters can’t pause to re-evaluate candidates after some have been eliminated, said Alex Hays, president of the committee supporting repeal.
Exhibit A, some say, is civic activist Dale Washam, who was elected assessor-treasurer last year after several previous unsuccessful bids at county office. Running against six other candidates, some with elective office experience and better funded campaigns, many believe Washam could not have been elected without ranked choice voting.
Since his election, Washam has uncovered his predecessor’s decision to skip property inspections required by state law.
But he also has drawn complaints from employees who claim he has violated labor laws.
If voters repeal ranked choice voting, county elections would use the top-two primary method. Under the top-two method, “there is a pause and a rational reallocation of votes,” Hays said.
Haughton said he believes Washam’s election has more to do with another recent charter amendment. In 2007 voters elected to make the assessor-treasurer a nonpartisan post.
If it were still partisan, Haughton said Washam likely would not have received a party nomination, which would have diminished his chance of getting elected to a partisan office.
As to the large number of candidates on the ballot, ranked choice voting supporters say that’s the point.
“Voters choosing from a list of candidates is what’s known as democracy,” said Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, a ranked choice voting supporter and past president of the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County.
By that measure, ranked choice voting was a success. In addition to four candidates for county executive, there were six for assessor-treasurer. In all, there were 22 candidates for seven county offices in last year’s general election.
In 2000, there were 15 candidates for the same seven offices. In 2004 there were 12.
Supporters say the costs of ranked choice voting have been overstated. And as for voter confusion, Haughton said: “I will confess it’s more complicated if there’s more candidates. It’s more complicated if there’s real competition.”
Supporters hope voters will reject the proposed charter amendment and give ranked choice voting another shot.
“People really deserve a chance to find out what the system is before it is thrown on the trash heap of history,” Kurnitz-Thurlow said.
Whether or not voters scrap the voting system, they’ll use it again. This year’s race for county auditor – which pits incumbent Jan Shabro against Tacoma City Councilwoman Julie Anderson and local government gadfly Will Baker – will be decided by ranked choice voting.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341