Even before a new era in Arlington elections has dawned, it already has snagged its inaugural victim.
Barbara Kanninen has become the first Arlington political candidate to fall to a come-from-behind challenger in instant-runoff voting, a way of casting ballots that soon could become standard in County Board elections.
Kanninen, a School Board member, initially won the most votes in the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s May 5-6 caucus to select a nominee in the upcoming County Board special election. But with just 31 percent of the vote, she fell well short of the 50-percent-plus-one requirement, kicking in the instant-runoff process in which candidates with low vote totals are eliminated and their votes reallocated as directed by their voters.
In this instance, former Columbia Pike Redevelopment Organization executive director Takis Karantonis, who was lagging Kanninen slightly (77 votes to 80) in the first round, picked up the vast majority of second- and third-place votes of those initially supporting candidates Chanda Choun and Nicole Merlene, catapulting himself to victory on the third round of balloting.
Karantonis now moves on as the Democratic nominee in a three-way field to succeed the late County Board member Erik Gutshall. The election is July 7.
Arlington Democrats have used instant-runoff voting before, largely in School Board nominating contests, but there has never been a case in which the candidate leading after the first round has not, ultimately, come out on top.
(The instant-runoff, or “ranked-choice,” system also is in place for the current Democratic School Board caucus, which is being conducted by mail due to public-health concerns. Five candidates are seeking two available seats, with the winners moving on to the Nov. 3 general election.)
State law has always mandated that general elections, special elections and state-run primaries use the winner-take-all approach (which the British, in their charming way, describe as the “first-past-the-post” system). But that could change in Arlington this year, as a recently enacted state law gives the County Board the power to mandate instant-runoff voting for County Board primaries and elections.
Arlington board members would have to act in July to establish instant-runoff voting for the November County Board election, where County Board Chairman Libby Garvey will be the Democratic nominee, facing perennial candidate Audrey Clement and, potentially, others who may file before the June 9 deadline.
The General Assembly enabling legislation, shepherded through Richmond by Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), is exclusive to Arlington and limited to County Board races. It makes Arlington something of a guinea pig for other Virginia localities, which in 2021 will themselves get the power to implement instant-runoff voting for their own boards of supervisors and city councils.
The Karanonis-Kanninen-Choun-Merlene race seemed to accomplish what supporters of instant-runoff voting envisioned – ending up with a victor who has the broadest appeal to voters in a multi-candidate field.
The race was something of a one-off, however, as voting was limited to the roughly 275 top Arlington County Democratic Committee leaders because there was no way for the party to conduct a broader caucus due to time constraints and limitations imposed by current public-health conditions.
Going forward, moving to an instant-runoff process for general elections is unlikely to make much of a difference in Arlington; even on their worst day and no matter their nominee, county Democrats usually are assured of at least 60 percent of the vote. But as the recent County Board caucus showed, instant-runoff voting is likely to have more impact in the party’s nomination process. It also could be a bigger factor in lower-turnout special election.
And on the plus side, at least for those who think Arlington has too many elections already, Kanninen’s defeat means she will stay put on the School Board. Had she won the Democratic nomination and then special election for County Board, a special election to fill her seat would have been required to be held on Nov. 3 – meaning three of the county’s five School Board seats would have been on the ballot on a single day.