Yakima County commissioners are still looking into claims that ranked-choice voting would be a more equitable election system than the current system.
The county uses a districtwide primary, in which any number of candidates can compete. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, where a countywide election then determines a winner.
In mid-January, OneAmerica and the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, along with four registered Yakima County Latino voters, sent a letter to the county alleging the system violated the Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latino voters.
OneAmerica is a Seattle-based immigrant and refugee advocacy group. The Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., describes itself as a nonprofit that “holds candidates and government officials accountable regardless of political affiliation.”
The groups suggested two alternatives involving ranked-choice voting.
Pierce County is the only county in Washington to implement ranked-choice voting. Voters approved the switch in 2006, but after two election cycles starting in 2008 asked to go back to their former system.
Yakima County Board Clerk Melissa Paul said Commissioner Vicki Baker traveled to Olympia last week on behalf of the county, and commissioners wanted to hear from her before they would further discuss the groups’ concerns.
Paul said Monday that the commissioners had responded to the OneAmerica letter.
“The Yakima Board of County Commissioners has instructed Yakima County legal staff to research the allegations and propose remedies and intends to work collaboratively with the residents named in the letter, and all residents of Yakima County, to ensure compliance with Washington State law,” she said in a news release.
Robin Engle, spokeswoman for OneAmerica, said a commissioned study had identified ranked-choice voting as the best alternative for Yakima County. Simplified: Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their choices of candidates. If a winner for a seat isn’t selected by a 50%-plus-one-vote majority, an algorithm eliminates the lowest-ranking candidate and advances votes.
Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross said his office will comply with whatever the commissioners decide, but noted his staff would need time to purchase new equipment, develop new ballots and educate voters about the changes.
Why ranked-choice voting?
Engle said the groups commissioned a study by Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a Boston-based company led by Moon Duchin of Tufts University and Justin Solomon of MIT.
It noted that while the voting-age population in Yakima County Commission District 1 is mainly white, the voting age population in District 2 is 40% Hispanic and 8% Native American, and in District 3 it’s 55% Hispanic. But districting is undercut by the system of electing commissioners countywide, the report concluded.
“The system itself negates any advantage of districting, nullifying the minorites’ opportunity to elect,” the report states. “In particular, we find strong cohesion between Hispanic and Native voters in their support of Hispanic candidates, while white voters block these candidates from ever reaching office.”
MGGG considered the alternative of redistricting, which the city of Yakima adopted in 2015 when a Voting Rights Act lawsuit necessitated the redrawing of district lines and instituted district-specific elections. But the report’s authors concluded that ranked-choice voting would be more effective for the county.
“We strongly recommend a shift to countywide ranked-choice voting,” MGGG wrote. “It is the most likely to provide minority opportunity to elect candidates of choice, it requires no line-drawing, and it is stable to population shifts over time.”
Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino served as the elections manager and as a deputy auditor in Pierce County during the county’s brief experiment with ranked-choice voting. She said its proponents often say the system will provide for more choice at general elections, as well as “nicer” campaigns since voters’ second choice of candidate also counts.
But she added that costs for switching over are high, and that voters don’t always end up liking the changes, as the situation in Pierce County showed.
Pierce County’s experience
Pierce County voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting in 2006, with 53% voting in favor.
Augino said she felt the county’s changing voting structure in previous years factored highly into that decision.
The Legislature instituted a “pick-a-party” primary in 2004, replacing a blanket primary system where voters could vote across party lines, and many voters were upset by the change, she said. Augino said voters saw ranked-choice as a way to preserve their right to vote for whichever candidates they wanted.
New equipment purchased by the Pierce County auditor allowed voters to rank their first-, second- and third-choice candidates for a single office for certain races in the next two election cycles.
The system used an algorithm to advance votes and track candidate totals if a winner wasn’t elected through a 50%-plus-one-vote majority.
The election in 2008 cost
$3.2 million, about half of which was specific to implementing the new voting system.
The county hired ranked-choice voting staff and a consultant to develop a project plan, conducted an internal legal review, and consulted with software vendors and City Council members prior to the change.
Augino also said her staff had to do lengthy certification tests and receive provisional emergency certification from the state to ensure that ballots would be counted correctly.
“Rather than benefiting from testing at the federal and state levels done on the equipment, the county has to ensure that the process was working,” she said. “That is a large expectation that the county has to be prepared to ensure.”
Voter education involved changes to the county’s website, a Speakers Bureau, mailers, a billboard campaign, a ballot insert, public service announcements and polling place posters. Voter turnout at the 2008 election was 81%, according to county data. A county survey of more than 90,000 voters showed that 66% said they did not like the new system.
The survey also showed that about 5% of voters said they did not understand how the new system worked.
The courts replaced the “pick-a-primary” with a top-two primary system in 2008, the same year the county implemented ranked-choice voting. A recap presentation of the elections identified issues including that some voters thought they could vote for two people in the primary.
Engle, the OneAmerica spokeswoman, said the changes from blanket to pick-a-party to top-two primaries unfolding at the same time as ranked-choice voting in Pierce County confused the issue.
“This much is clear,” she said. “The election was conducted without issue and voters understood how to rank their ballots.”
The Pierce County ranked-choice election also marked the first time the county had ever elected a woman, Pat McCarthy, as its executive, Engle noted.
Nine of 39 counties in Washington have ranked-choice voting-ready equipment, according to a 2017 article from the Sightline Institute. In that article, reporter Kristin Eberhard posits that implementing the system could be done much more cheaply today.
But Augino said any switch to a new election system inevitably requires an investment.
“The money spent when I was at Pierce County was necessary to ensure the ballots were counted accurately,” she said. “It’s also important in a county where you are communicating with voters in multiple languages to invest dollars and time to make sure all constituencies understand.”
Augino said her office sees the most challenges to voting systems that involve district-based elections in the primary and then countywide votes in the general elections, similar to the current system in Yakima County.
She said redistricting is a common solution.
“There aren’t a lot of cities or counties who have used ranked-choice voting,” Augino said. “But it’s best for those at the county or city level to determine the best election system for the area.”
Editorial Note: This story has been updated to reflect Lori Augino served as elections director and deputy auditor in Pierce County during 2008 and 2009.