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Seattle will likely switch to ranked-choice voting — but not for years

Election 2022 Alaska Ranked Choice Voting
Mark Thiessen
This July 28, 2022, photo shows a person completing a ballot in a mock election at Cafecito Bonito in Anchorage, Alaska, where people ranked the performances by drag performers. It's one of the different methods organizations have used to teach Alaskans about ranked-choice voting which was used in Alaska's special U.S. House election in August.

With most votes counted in this month's election, Seattle appears poised to pass a measure to change how people vote in primaries. The measure would adopt "ranked-choice voting," where instead of voting for one candidate, you pick your favorite, and then if you want, a second choice, a third, and so on.

But you're not going to start seeing your ballots change in primaries next year, and you might not see any difference for a few years.

That's because King County's elections division has to develop a whole new system for how to count votes that are more complicated than just filling in a bubble.

The county will need to upgrade the software tabulating votes, make new rules governing interpretation of voter intent when counting ballots, consider whether to limit the number of candidates voters can rank, and figure out how to design ballots, according to Halei Watkins, a spokesperson for the department.

"Jurisdictions around the country, they do it all a little bit differently," Watkins said. "They could be a table where exactly you write out one, two, three. It could be different columns where you fill in bubbles. So we're going to be really thoughtful about that. We're going to want to test that with our voters."

In 2006, when Pierce County voted ranked-choice in, it took them two years to start using it — and just one more to repeal it.

The measure gives King County elections five years to implement it. But even then, it'll only be used in August primary elections.

Similar measures appear to be failing in San Juan and Clark counties, and passing in the Portland metro area. In Seattle, unofficial results say almost 51% of voters wanted to change how the city votes in primaries, and an overwhelming number want to switch to ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting supporters say their next fight is taking it to the state legislature, passing a law that will allow ranked-choice voting to be used in presidential primaries.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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