Campaign to bring new voting style to local elections faces first hurdle: Is it legal?

A group called Olympia Approves has launched a campaign to bring “approval voting” to city elections.

By Abby Spegman

The Olympian

Voters in the upcoming Olympia mayoral primary will pick one candidate from a list of five, with the top two finishers going on to November’s general election.

But what if you could pick two or three or four candidates you liked?

A group called Olympia Approves has launched a campaign to bring a new style of voting called approval voting to city elections. In such a system, voters choose all the candidates they approve of and the candidate with the most votes wins.

The group hopes to get a measure on the April 2020 special election ballot.

The group argues that the current voting system doesn’t let voters express their preferences on all candidates, and that approval voting eliminates the risk of a spoiler, where one candidate draws votes away from a similar candidate to the benefit of a third.

Fargo, North Dakota, last year became the first U.S. jurisdiction to adopt approval voting. An effort is now underway to bring it to St. Louis, Missouri.

“Our claim is that Fargo now has the best democratic system in the world, which is bizarre,” said Clay Shentrup, a campaign organizer.

Shentrup, who lives in Olympia, co-founded the group Counted, which advocates for election reform at the state level. He said the hope is to use Olympia to make the case for approval voting in county or statewide elections.

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.

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?”