We Oppose Approval Voting

Seattle Voters

Seattle DOESN'T approve. We oppose the approval voting initiative to modify Seattle elections. This would slow down community led efforts already underway to reform our electoral system through ranked-choice voting. -Washington for Equitable Representatio

In November, a group called Seattle Approves launched an effort to modify our local elections. They claim this effort will make Seattle elections fairer and more representative, but in reality, their proposal would lock in current flaws without improving elections in our city. We oppose this approval voting initiative and invite the leaders of Seattle Approves to instead work with us – community leaders, researchers, and advocates – to implement real democracy reform in Seattle.

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To: Seattle Voters
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Last November, a group called Seattle Approves launched an effort to modify our local elections allowing voters to “approve” of as many candidates as they would like when voting. They claim this change will make Seattle elections “as representative as possible.” Their only evidence to substantiate that claim are abstract models and theories when evidence from the only instances of “approval elections” in the US—Fargo, ND in 2020 & St. Louis 2021—directly contradicts their claims. We oppose this approval voting initiative and invite the leaders of Seattle Approves to instead work with us—community leaders, researchers, and advocates—to implement democracy reform that has been proven to work, like ranked-choice voting, in Seattle.

“Seattle Approves” can’t deliver better elections. Approval voting assumes (wrongfully) that most voters will approve multiple candidates. An analysis of the municipal elections in St. Louis, the only major city to hold “approval elections” (Fargo has 1/6th of Seattle’s population), most voters chose only 1 candidate to approve. In other examples touted by approval advocates, more than 90% of voters only approve of one candidate. Understanding why the foundational premise of approval-voting advocacy defies real-world evidence leads to a critical, inconvenient truth for their effort. Voters are smart.

Voters intuitively recognize the lose-lose scenario that approval voting needlessly forces them into: If they approve of more than one candidate, they can't state which one of them is their preferred candidate; so the only way for them to indicate who their preferred candidate is, is to approve of only one candidate. Given that most people, especially those historically disenfranchised, consider it a voting ‘right’ to be able to indicate who their preferred candidate is—as they have been able to do in every other election—it’s no wonder which side of this lose-lose choice voters opted for in St. Louis, and would opt for if implemented in Seattle.

“Seattle Approves” will dilute the votes of working class, Black and Brown voters. Many Seattle Approves advocates will point to the election of St. Louis’ first Black woman as evidence that the reform empowers voters of color. But the election of a person of color, isn’t a substitute for the empowerment of all voters of color.

Revisiting the evidence of the St. Louis approval election, University of Missouri-St. Louis professor David Kimball found that voters in majority-White wards were more likely to engage with approval voting by casting multiple votes than voters in majority-Black wards. More alarmingly, because there have only been two “approval elections” and the approval voting system leads to an uneven number of votes where a candidate with 51% of first-choice support can lose to a candidate with no first-choice support, the “Seattle Approves” reform could violate the “one-person, one-vote” principle of the 14th Amendment, and its adoption could lead to Seattle being subject to a voting rights lawsuit.

For these reasons, we invite you to join the chorus of voices that oppose approval voting in Seattle. We recommend that Seattleites decline to sign any petition circulated by Seattle Approves, as this effort will do nothing to advance our democracy, could make the worst aspects of our current system worse, and even introduce new problems into our already-troubled election system. Their strategy attracts a flood of out-of-state, dark money that would buy their way to the ballot through pay-to-play signature gatherers. The effort has very little local support from community organizations, and would slow down community led efforts already underway to reform our electoral system.

Here’s how we can work together on proven solutions to improve Seattle elections:

We disagree with approval voting, but we share and respect the motives of Seattle Approves. Too many voters don’t feel their voice matters.

If Seattle Approves wants to bring us better elections, follow the lead of organizations from communities of color who are currently working tirelessly in Olympia to lift the state ban on the kinds of electoral reforms that Seattle Approves says they support.

For all Seattleites who aim to make our elections more fair and representative, the first, best thing you can do is to join the movement for the Local Options Bill (SHB 1156 and SB 5584) which would allow all localities in Washington to implement reforms with a track record of securing more equitable elections for everyone. Those reforms include ranked-choice voting (which lets you vote for multiple candidates AND indicate your preference), and proportional representation (which makes sure the percent of votes cast is proportionate to the percent of representation).

The bills are sponsored by Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley and Senator Yasmin Trudeau, both women of color. Getting them passed is the first step toward better elections in our city.

We oppose approval voting in Seattle and urge Seattleites to support proven reforms like ranked-choice voting and proportional representation instead.