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Arlington’s efforts to create “instant-runoff” County Board elections may hinge on how an upcoming meeting between county and state officials and technology vendors goes.

Arlington officials are aiming to set up the confab in early February, to determine if the technology exists to successfully run such elections, now that Arlington has the power to switch to the instant-runoff (also called “ranked-choice”) format from the traditional winner-take-all process that has been in place since the County Board was created in the early 1930s.

County elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer said she has reached out to the county’s voter-equipment provider and the Virginia Department of Elections in hopes of setting up a meeting to “discuss logistics of what exactly is needed.”

The biggest challenge discovered to date is a limitation in current county polling equipment that would restrict the number of candidates running in an instant-runoff election to three – something that wouldn’t work if more candidates filed.

Hopes are that the technology can be upgraded to accommodate at least five candidates, but even that would leave a rather fine margin of error, in case a large field of general-election candidates materialized.

The General Assembly in 2020 approved legislation, patroned by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), allowing Arlington to serve as a guinea pig for instant-runoff voting. The decision on adopting it, or not, rests with the County Board.

That manner of voting is similar to what already is in play in Arlington County Democratic Committee nominating processes. Voters can (but are not required to) rank candidates in order of preference when filling out ballots. Low-scoring candidates are eliminated, with their votes reallocated as voters direct, until a candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote.

Supporters say the process ensures that the candidate emerging the winner represents the will (if not always the first choice) of a majority of the electorate.

Instant-runoff voting also likely would disincentivize overt hostility among the candidates, since contenders would have to try to become a voter’s second or third choice in a crowded field.

The impact of instant-runoff voting is largest in elections with a large number of candidates, where no single contender might be expected to receive a majority outright. And over the past year, candidates in Arlington Democratic nominating elections found out the hard way that merely winning the most votes in the first round was not necessarily a route to victory:

• In the June Democratic caucus to fill the seat of County Board member Erik Gutshall, who died, candidate Barbara Kanninen received the most votes in the first round, but Takis Karantonis picked up more votes from those supporting candidates who were eliminated in successive rounds, and was the first to get to 50 percent plus one.

• In the springtime Democratic caucus for two open School Board seats, candidate Steven Krieger finished the first round in second place, but later was edged out by David Priddy for second behind Cristina Diaz-Torres.

After their caucus victories, Karantonis, Diaz-Torres and Priddy each went on to attain office (Karantonis winning the County Board special election in July, Diaz-Torres and Priddy winning the School Board election in November).

The legislation patroned by Hope applies only to Arlington and only to County Board elections (if adopted by the County Board). A separate bill, also approved in the 2020 session but not taking effect until later this year, would allow other localities to enact instant-runoff elections for their governing bodies starting in November.

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