The path to fixing giant problems like gerrymandering, money-soaked elections, and parties’ and officials’ accountability to voters leads through electoral reform, I’ve been arguing (here, here, here, here, here). The path to electoral reform in Washington, DC, leads through the states—the laboratories of democracy. And the clearest path to reform in the states likely leads through localities. Voters want to see ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and other, better electoral systems working in the real world, before they may be willing to take a chance on statewide reforms. If voters see it working for their city and school board, they are more likely to want better voting systems for their state representatives.
Perhaps the state did not mean to micro-manage local jurisdictions and take away local options, but state statutes seem to do just that. For example, in 1999 Vancouver voters amended their city charter to eliminate primary elections and use ranked-choice voting in the general, but they found themselves blocked by over-broad state law requiring them to hold a primary. This year, voters in Whatcom county are contemplating the benefits of proportional representation, but state law won’t allow them to implement it.
This year, the Washington State Legislature is introducing the Local Options Bill to clarify the state’s intent to give local jurisdictions the freedom to make their own decisions about how to handle primaries and at-large seats. The Local Options Bill doesn’t require the state to do anything or pay anything—just get out of the way of local jurisdictions that want to make their elections work better.
The Local Options Bill frees cities, counties, and school boards to decide whether to employ a voting system that better meets their objectives. Specifically, local jurisdictions could choose:
- To eliminate the primary election and use ranked-choice voting in a single high-turnout general election. This would give general election voters more voice, eliminate vote-splitting, encourage more positive issue-oriented campaigns, and, in some cases, save taxpayers money. For example, in Seattle, about twice as many people vote in presidential year general elections as in presidential year primary elections. Consolidating into a single high-turnout election would give more voters a chance to weigh in.
- To use proportional representation that ensures local elected officials reflect the diversity of voters in values, party affiliation, ideology, race, ethnicity, and gender. Instead of single-winner at-large seats or single-winner districts, local jurisdictions could choose to use multi-winner districts with ranked-choice voting. Proportional representation offers many benefits, including giving more voters a voice in local elections, defanging the gerrymander, and giving outsiders and reformers a chance to win seats and implement changes to reduce the power of big money and special interests.
If state legislators in Olympia pass the Local Options Bill in 2018 and give alternatives to local voters, some cities, counties, or school boards might choose to eliminate primaries or adopt proportional representation. When they do, other Washingtonians will get the chance to see those reforms in action. Seeing reforms in action in Washington cities, counties and school boards, is a likely path to bigger reforms as voters see the benefits of better voting systems and start to demand better voting at the state and federal level, too.
From the blog post "A State Bill to Let Washington Localities Choose a Better Voting System" by Kristin Eberhard, Copyright 2018 Sightline Institute; used with permission.