PORT ANGELES — A divided Port Angeles City Council has eschewed a proposal to ask the state Legislature for the right to choose a new voting system that could replace the top-two primary.
The council voted 4-2 Tuesday to reject a resolution seeking legislative support for a local option for ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting would allow registered voters to rank City Council candidates from favorite to least favorite regardless of position.
It would eliminate the top-two primary and the need for numbered positions in at-large contests.
All candidates would run for any council seat.
Council members Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin and Mayor Sissi Bruch voted to support the resolution backing House Bill 1722 and Senate Bill 5708, both of which would give local jurisdictions the option of using ranked-choice voting in local elections.
Four no votes
Council members Cherie Kidd, Michael Merideth, Kate Dexter and Mike French voted no.
The state legislation stalled in committee during the 2019 session.
“This does not mandate that we actually adopt whatever comes out of the state Legislature if the state Legislature passes these bills,” said Schromen- Wawrin, who proposed the resolution.
“But it does at least give us the choice to use a system that can better represent the people of Port Angeles in this legislative body.”
In ranked-choice voting, a candidate who wins a majority of first-preference votes is declared the winner.
If no candidate wins a majority of top-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and second-ranked preferences are applied.
The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting say it improves voter turnout, reduces negative campaigning, eliminates costly primaries and ensures that the winner has majority support.
Opponents who testified Tuesday said they preferred the current system.
“I don’t feel that the council has the right to strip that right of the voters in this community out of the primary election,” Danetta Rutten said during the first public comment period Tuesday.
“I also feel that with ranked voting, you allow the person that spends the most money on a campaign to win the campaign. Whosever out there spending money on advertising and the name’s out there first, it becomes a popularity contest.”
Matthew Rainwater, former chair of the Clallam County GOP, said ranked-choice voting could be used to suppress the Republican vote.
He cited a Nov. 19 council presentation by Lisa Ayrault, chair of FairVote Washington, who provided an overview of ranked-choice voting and said primary voters “tend to be older, wealthier, whiter, more conservative and much more strongly partisan” than the average voter.
Ayrault said FairVote Washington is nonpartisan.
“It appears that that’s a way to try to get around a conservative vote, to try to get rid of the top-two primaries,” Rainwater said.
“With the current system that we have with top-two primaries, everybody can be a candidate and the top two win. So everybody has a voice.”
In another public comment period near the end of the meeting, resident Ed Chadd said ranked-choice voting would improve voter participation and allow citizens to choose the best candidates.
“Having two people running against each other, both of whom I think are good, and two people running against each other, and I think they’re pretty not so good, it only gives me really the ability to vote for one person that I think is good when there actually were two,” Chadd said of the current system.
“So in terms of my own vote, my franchise, I believe that [ranked-choice voting] opens it up even more.”
Two City Council races were decided in the 2017 general election after 10 candidates applied for four positions.
“They didn’t necessarily get to choose their top four candidates,” said Schromen-Wawrin, who was elected in one of the two contested races in 2017.
“They got to choose between A and B, and then they got to choose between C and D. I think this provides options to do it better.”
Kidd said top-two primaries are important for citizens to get to know unfamiliar candidates.
“This is too complicated,” Kidd said of ranked-choice voting.
Other cities that have tried ranked-choice voting have “had problems” with the system, Kidd said.
“Historically, our country has one person, one vote,” Kidd said.
“And this is a far cry from that.”
French said one person one vote comes from the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case Baker vs. Carr, which enabled federal courts to hear redistricting cases.
“We have not had one person one vote for our history,” French said, addressing Kidd.
“We’ve had a history of democratic reforms to expand the franchise to more people to make sure that it’s fair, to make sure that it’s more democratic.
“So what you’re saying is not true,” French added. “You seem to have just a completely ignorant view of our history and that offends me.”
French, Dexter and Bruch emphasized that the resolution before the City Council was not to change the election system in Port Angeles.
It would simply ask the Legislature to give the city the option to use ranked-choice voting in the future, council members said.
Merideth said he would not support the resolution because city constituents had not asked for ranked-choice voting.
“I have not heard anything to make me decide … that the folks of Port Angeles want to even start this snowball going,” Merideth said.
“And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the system that we have now.
“I’m not in favor of reinventing the wheel.”
Bruch said there would still be political forums and debates if the city adopted ranked-choice voting.
“Anything that gets politics to be more respectful, I am all for it because we need to change the rhetoric in our country,” Bruch said.
“I’m willing to at least try it, to open the door to something new.”
Dexter and French, who were receptive to the idea of ranked-choice voting, voted against the proposed resolution after it became apparent that the council would be split.
“If we’re not unified, I don’t think it’s going to be — this or any other topic — as effective as it should be,” Kidd said.
“We’re not going to be unified on this,” Schromen-Wawrin said, “because council member Kidd heard in the presentation that conservatives vote more than the demographic average in primaries.”
Kidd objected to Schromen-Wawrin’s comments and called for two points of order.
“It’s against council procedures to question the motives of another council member and insult another council member,” Kidd said. “You know that, Lindsey.”
“The point of order is not really valid,” Schromen-Wawrin said, “because what I’m trying to say is that it’s a majority of the council that gets to decide.
“Don’t let a minority of the council stop us from moving forward on things we know are right and what we should do,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].