It seems like the progressive thing for a self-professed progressive community to do: Switch Arlington County Board elections from winner-take-all to ranked-choice (or “instant-runoff”) formats.
But there are some hiccups.
“There’s a lot of pieces involved,” said county elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer, who aims to convene a summit of involved parties – county staff, Virginia Department of Elections, equipment vendors – early in the new year to “hash out all the details.”
At the request of Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), the General Assembly earlier this year voted to allow Arlington to serve as an instant-runoff guinea pig before other localities have the option to implement it a year from now.
The instant-runoff process already is in use when the Arlington County Democratic Committee selects its nominees for local office through a caucus, though not in state-run primaries. When filling out ballots, voters are allowed (but not required) to rank candidates in order of preference; should no candidate receive 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated, and his/her votes are reallocated based on voter preferences.
The process continues in multiple rounds until a candidate hits the 50-percent threshold.
Between the pandemic crisis and the fact that the 2020 County Board race saw only two candidates (Democrat Libby Garvey and independent Audrey Clement), board members did not move forward on considering enactment of the instant-runoff process. Insiders say there is some division among board members on the idea, but there seems to be a majority in support.
But before any County Board decision, there needs to be assurances that “we’re all on the same page,” said Reinemeyer, a sentiment shared by Electoral Board members.
“The devil’s always in the details – it’s important to get this right,” said board vice chairman Matt Weinstein. “I look forward . . . to trying to figure this out.”
The biggest current challenge? Election software used by the county allows for ranked-choice voting, but only in elections with three or fewer candidates. A pending software upgrade would bring that to five candidates, but “I don’t think legally we can limit the number of candidates that can run,” Reinemeyer said.
In addition, the state government would be required to certify all system upgrades, something that may not be high on the Virginia Department of Elections’ priority list, given only one jurisdiction is involved. And the legislature insisted, as a condition of passing Hope’s bill, that all costs involved with a switch to ranked-choice voting be paid by the Arlington government, which these days is pleading poverty every time a new initiative is proposed.
At the Dec. 16 Electoral Board meeting, a representative from the Arlington County Democratic Committee pressed to know how much of the internal decision-making process would be open to the public.
The answer seems to be, some of it.
Electoral Board secretary Scott McGeary said the effort would “informally move ahead . . . to take us to the next steps.”
“We’ll explore what makes sense,” he said. “We want to have an inclusive process at the appropriate moments.”
While Hope’s bill applies exclusively to Arlington and exclusively to County Board races, another measure – successfully patroned by Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) – allows for ranked-choice voting in a wide array of races statewide on a 10-year trial basis, starting in 2021.
Supporters of the concept say it helps to ensure that fringe candidates do not emerge victorious in a large field of candidates, and encourages candidates to be nicer to one another in hopes of becoming the second, third or fourth choices of voters attached to another contender.
The impact of ranked-choice voting already is evident in the composition of the Arlington County Board. In a Democratic caucus held to select a candidate for the July 7 special election called in the wake of the death of County Board member Erik Gutshall, candidate Barbara Kanninen (a School Board member) would have won if the event had been conducted on a winner-take-all basis. But Takis Karantonis, who ran second behind Kanninen on the first round of balloting, came from behind and was the first to hit the 50-percent threshold in subsequent rounds.
A similar situation occurred in this year’s Democratic School Board caucus, in which David Priddy came from behind to snag one of the two slots, after running third in the first round of balloting.
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