Conducting Arlington County Board elections using an “instant-runoff” method will be on hold until at least 2021.
County Board members opted against considering the proposal at their July meeting, making it impossible for it to be implemented in time for the Nov. 3 general election.
Had it been put in place, it wouldn’t have had an impact on the upcoming County Board race, since there are only two candidates (incumbent Democrat Libby Garvey and independent Audrey Clement) on the ballot, and instant-runoff (also known as “ranked-choice”) voting only kicks in if there are three or more candidates.
General Assembly members this year approved legislation by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) allowing Arlington to switch to instant-runoff voting for County Board elections as early as this November. Garvey had expressed interest in considering the idea in time for the 2020 election, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put many non-essential proposals on the back burner.
Arlington election officials say they have the technological infrastructure to implement the change, should county leaders decide to go the instant-runoff route, and the Arlington League of Women Voters has voiced its support for the proposal.
“Virginians were leaders in creating American democracy, and it’s only fitting that we are now one of a handful of states updating our democracy to include ranked-choice voting,” local League president Joan Porte said.
In instant-runoff elections, voters can (but are not required to) rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes cast, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, his or her votes are reallocated as directed by voters, and the process continues until a candidate wins a majority.
Supporters of the proposal say it would encourage more civil elections, since candidates would be trying to appeal to a broader group than just their base, and would tamp down on the possibility that fringe candidates would sneak into office with a minority of votes in large fields of candidates.
Hope’s legislation applies exclusively to Arlington. A separate bill enacted in the 2020 General Assembly session would allow other localities to move to instant-runoff voting for boards of supervisors and city councils, but will not go into effect until the 2021 election cycle.
General-election races for School Board and constitutional offices would continue to be held under the winner-take-all process.
Switching to instant-runoff voting for County Board would be unlikely to change the political calculus in Arlington general elections, where Democrats retain a significant edge. But if it is extended to party primaries, it could have an impact on the selection of Democratic nominees.
When it comes to party-run caucuses, which already use the instant-runoff process, 2020 marked the first time candidates who were not leading at the outset came from behind to win:
• The Arlington County Democratic Committee used the process to select its nominee for the July 7 County Board special election. In that race, Barbara Kanninen led the field of candidates in total votes on the first round, but was overtaken in subsequent rounds by Takis Karantonis, who won the party nomination and went on the win the special election.
• In the Democrats’ School Board caucus, one of the party’s two eventual endorsees (David Priddy) overtook another (Steven Krieger) over the course of several rounds of balloting. Priddy ended up placing second, securing a spot on the general-election ballot with fellow Democrat Cristina Diaz-Torres, who led the balloting from start to finish.
(Moving to an instant-runoff process for nominations is not an exclusively Democratic phenomenon; Virginia Republicans used it this year for selection of their congressional nominees, which were held via conventions.)
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