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Originally published October 13, 2009 at 4:44 PM | Page modified October 13, 2009 at 6:46 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Ranked-choice voting has appeal, but it's too complicated

In Pierce County, Charter Amendment 3 seeks to repeal ranked-choice voting, also called instant-runoff voting. It's a system with some very good points, but it's too complicated for the public to trust it.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Our top-two election system is excellent, is it not? Seattle voters, having given Greg Nickels 25 percent of the primary vote, Joe Mallahan 27 percent and Mike McGinn 28 percent, will choose between the top two.

There were also five other candidates who together had almost 20 percent of the vote. Their voters will also get to choose between the top two. What they won't get, though, is a choice among the top three, which this year was the real contest.

Suppose they could. Suppose Seattle had a system in which the supporters of James Donaldson and the others could vote their second choices with Nickels still in the running. That would add to those voters' options without reducing anyone else's. It would be a better system — at least, for those voters.

Pierce County has just such a system. And in Charter Amendment 3, they are about to vote on whether to throw it out.

The system is called ranked-choice or instant-runoff voting. It asks voters to rank candidates first, second, third, etc. In races of three or more, it kicks out the weakest candidate and moves that candidate's voters to their next choice. It repeats this until it has a winner.

The system is used in Burlington, Vt., San Francisco and a few other islands of the trendy left. Pierce County is not that sort of place. It adopted ranked choice in 2006 almost by sleepwalking. It has had one election under it, in 2008, including a four-way contest for county executive. A Republican, Shawn Bunney, received the most first-choice votes, but a Democrat, Pat McCarthy, won by getting more second-choice votes.

Probably McCarthy would have won under the top-two system. Voters understand that system and accept it. In Pierce County, says Katie Blinn, assistant state director of elections, "People didn't understand how the votes were counted." That the Republican won more first-choice votes but lost the race "caused terrible consternation among the public."

Even the winner, County Executive McCarthy, has signed the argument in the Voter's Pamphlet to ditch the system.

It does have advantages. Paul Jacob, a Libertarian brought in to campaign for it, likes it because it keeps more candidates in the mix until November. It gives voters more interesting choices.

Krist Novoselic, chairman of FairVote, the national group that promotes ranked choice, says it allows voters to express more of what they think about the candidates, and uses that information. "It's more democratic," says Novoselic, a Democrat.

Alex Hays, who heads the campaign for repeal, argues that the voters who gain under ranked choice are the supporters of unpopular candidates. Top-two knocks them out. Ranked choice lets them back in. By doing that, Hays argues, the system will shift the candidates in the major parties further from the center. Hays, who is president of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, says that's a bad outcome.

I like ranked choice for the reasons Jacob and Novoselic like it. But having tried to explain it to various people, my enthusiasm wanes.

Fairness and democracy are important values, but they aren't everything. An election system needs to be simple, so that citizens will participate in it, trust it and accept the authority of the candidates chosen under it. And ranked-choice voting is not simple. To the average voter, it's a black box.

I think that kills it.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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