What Happened to RCV?

Ranked Choice Voting has gained traction around the country. Maine has adopted Ranked Choice Voting as its election method of choice and Alaska plans to use it in 2022. The election methods by which we select people to represent us in government are fundamental–and current methods are neither perfect nor are they set in stone. Ranked Choice Voting offers several advantages over our current “first past the post” system, including a diminished likelihood of extremist candidates gaining a foothold and decreased motivation for nasty, negative campaigning. I, and most of us, I suspect, tend to think of whatever voting method being used where we vote as “just the way it is,” but, in fact, voting methods are malleable and contentious. For example, just in my lifetime, Washington State’s primary election system (now known as the “Top Two” primary, a primary in which the voter does not declare a party affiliation and can vote for the person they deem the best candidate for each position regardless of the candidate’s party) has evolved through a complex series of court cases, laws, and initiatives to arrive at its current form. You can read that history here. I see that history as a struggle between voters’ desire to vote for whomever they choose and the two main political parties’ wish to require party fealty. 

So what does it take for Ranked Choice Voting to gain a foothold in the State of Washington? It started with an idea, a recognition that there might be a better way to elect our representatives. Some people take an interest in the subject, study it, and talk up the idea with other people. People who come to feel strongly about the idea associate with each other, form groups, and make efforts to inform other citizens how such the idea might improve our voting methods. At some point a formal group might be formed, solicit donations, and hire staff to push the idea with fellow citizens and with potential legislative sponsors. 

I don’t remember exactly when or how I first became interested in Ranked Choice Voting. Like so many ideas, it feels like it gradually seeped into my consciousness, the same way, looking back, that Iabsorbed the “one person, one vote” credo in the Voting Rights movement of the 1960s–a credo that I now realize was quite new at the time–and far more contentious at the time than I knew. Similarly, I do not remember when or how I first encountered local people who spend a consider amount of their volunteer time talking with voters and with representatives at various levels levels of government about Ranked Choice Voting. 

I used to imagine (without really thinking much about it at all) that representatives to government come up with ideas like Ranked Choice Voting on their own. Now I realize that is mostly wrong. Promoters of Ranked Choice voting capture the attention of legislators, cajole them into offering support for the idea, and then demonstrate that the idea presented has broad support. Even that isn’t enough unless the idea captures the strong support of a legislator who knows their way around the law-making process, from crafting a bill to cajoling other legislators, to making use of the all the technical roadblocks to moving a bill forward.

So how does this apply to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)? Existing Washington state law (the Revised Code of Washington, RCW) requires a bunch of fussy adjustments in order to allow RCV even to be considered for use by local jurisdictions, I do not know exactly who crafted of the legal language of HB1056, but a quick look at that link will convince you that it was someone with considerable understanding of the details of election law in Washington State. Well over 30 sections of the RCW require modification to enable the possible use of RCW within the State. 

This year RCV has a very knowledgeable and energetic legislative sponsor, Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a  state representative from District 37 (part of Seattle) first elected in 2020. She clearly knows her way around the legislative process to a degree that belies her newness to the job. 

A major obstacle to the passage of any bill in the Washington State state house is the fiscal impact attached to it. Initially, HB 1156, the RCV Bill, was saddled with an estimated cost of around 3 million dollars. Rep. Harris-Talley, as an energetic prime sponsor of the bill, was able to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact is far lower, around $600K, by presenting cost data from other states that have implements Ranked Choice Voting. (State governments have to balance their budgets, so a high cost can sink a bill in a hurry.)

A dramatically lower fiscal impact and strong community support (including many who read this blog and registered support for the bill) gave HB 1156 the momentum to pass through several House committees with a “do pass” recommendation. The bill reached the Rules Committee, the last step before a floor vote, the furthest an RCV enablement bill had ever gotten. Unfortunately, on March 10, the day after the March 9 cutoff date for bills to pass out of their chamber of origin, HB 1156 was referred back to the Rules Committee without a House floor vote. 

What happened? I am told that in order for a bill to come to a vote on the House floor the majority party caucus (in this case, the House Democratic Caucus) won’t bring the bill to the floor unless they have among them enough assured votes (50, one more than half) within their caucus to pass the bill–regardless of whether members of the other caucus have pledged to vote for the bill. I suspect, but I cannot say that I actually know, that this rule is to avoid the embarrassment of the majority party of having a bill voted down on the floor by pledged members of the other party voting no when they said they would vote yea. In any case, at the critical moment the House majority caucus didn’t have the assured 50 votes within it to pass the bill. Many suspect that what happened was this: the Secretary of State and some county auditors (the folks who administer elections) were taken by surprise by the groundswell of support for HB 1156. Jerked to attention by the bill’s near arrival on the House floor they put on the brakes by contacting Democratic legislators and expressing their concerns. Change is hard and time-consuming. Passage of HB 1156, they suddenly realized, might put them in a position of having to change procedures–and they, caught a little off guard, didn’t feel prepared.

What happens now? New concept for me: HB 1156 is not dead, it just goes dormant until the House meets in 2022. HB 1156 is still in the Rules Committee and poised to go to the House floor in the 2022 session. (The legislature proceeds in the two-year intervals between the elections, elections that will likely make some changes in its composition. With the convening of the new legislature in 2023 [following the November 2022 elections], all bills that did not become law in the previous two years go back to square one and need to be re-filed.)

Before the legislature re-convenes for the other half of its biennium in 2022 the job for supporters of HB 1156 is to talk with their county auditors and legislators and make it clear to them the level of support for the change in state law that would allow jurisdictions within the state to adopt RCV. With sufficient demonstration of support HB 1156 might pass in 2022.

Following a bill this closely is a new and highly educational experience for me. Among the lessons:

1) Community engagement over a long time is hugely important. 
2) Nothing worthwhile is made law without long term commitment of volunteers (or, I suppose, fewer volunteers and lots and lots of money).
3) A smart, committed prime sponsor for a bill, a person who understands the levers and rules of government, is essential to getting a bill passed.
4) The laws that govern us (the RCW, the Revised Code of Washington) are complex. They require people with considerable legal understanding to craft legislation that works.
5) It pays to understand the rules under which legislation happens. Otherwise, the occasional news article mentioning things like “legislative cutoff dates” are opaque and leave the impression that government just might be evil and underhanded. 

Dive in, get involved, pay attention. This should be our government, the people’s government. That won’t happen without the people learning how it all works. Become acquainted with Ranked Choice Voting. Register support with your County Auditor and your legislators. 

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. One tidbit I picked up in researching this post I find particularly instructive. In the course of Washington State’s legislative and legal convulsions over its open system for voting in primary elections the people of Washington spoke clearly. Initiative 872, passed in 2004, passed with 60 percent of the vote. With it the people chose the top two primary we use today. (Since 1935 Washington had a “blanket primary,” a system to which both the Republican and Democratic Parties legally objected and tried to change through the courts.) The top two primary system we now use was the Washington State people’s answer to Party attempts to gain the upper hand. I guess Washingtonians have been a pretty independent lot for a long time.