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Voters in future Arlington County Board elections could find themselves using the “instant-runoff” method rather than the current “winner-takes-it-all” manner.

Both houses of the General Assembly have approved and sent to Gov. Northam a measure allowing Arlington to conduct its County Board races using instant-runoff voting, also known as “ranked-choice” voting.

The measure’s patron, Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), said he was pleased with the progress thus far. He has touted the ranked-choice method as a way to get away from political extremes.

“Ranked-choice voting will ensure the candidate that emerges has majority support, and, if we’ve learned anything from the recent Democratic [presidential] primary and the 2016 Republican [presidential] primary, nominating a candidate with majority support ensures the candidate that emerges is more reflective of the community’s values,” Hope told the Sun Gazette.

Hope last year patroned a similar bill, which made it out of a House of Delegates committee with a positive recommendation but never made it to the House floor for a full vote. This year, his measure was approved 68-30 by the House of Delegates, then amended and approved 21-19 by the state Senate. The House of Delegates approved the Senate revision on a 63-36 vote, sending it to the governor.

The bill does not automatically eliminate the existing election procedure, in which the highest-vote-getting candidate (or candidates, when there are several seats on the ballot) automatically wins. But it gives the County Board authority to change to the instant-runoff procedure, in which voters can (but are not required to) rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, 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.

The Arlington Electoral Board, which last year was somewhat lacking in enthusiasm for Hope’s proposal, has not taken a formal position on it. But the county’s elections director, Gretchen Reinemeyer, said her office stands to implement the change, if it occurs.

“We will be prepared to implement ranked-choice voting if requested,” she said. “The voting machines purchased in 2015 were the first in the nation certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to run ranked-choice-voting elections. We were looking ahead.”

One challenge in making the switch would be the requirement, added during the legislative process, that Arlington pay any related costs of the Virginia Department of Elections if such a switch was made.

Hope’s measure applies only to Arlington; a similar bill, patroned by Charlottesville Democrat Sally Hudson, would expand ranked-choice voting to boards of supervisors and other local governing bodies statewide, but as approved by the legislature would not go into effect until 2021.

Hope’s bill, by contrast, takes effect on July 1, which might be enough time for County Board members to enact ordinances to have it in place for the Nov. 3 general election.

County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said that was a possibility, but it was too soon to tell.

“I’m excited that it’s moving its way through – I’m absolutely willing to consider it for November,” she told the Sun Gazette. “We [County Board members] would need to work with the community, the Electoral Board, registrar and staff to decide if Arlington wants to implement it for 2020 and, if we do, that we would be able to implement it that quickly.”

The County Board would not have the final say on the timing, however, as Virginia Department of Elections is tasked with implementing the legislation and conducting public outreach to explain it to the electorate.

Bob Brink, a former Arlington legislator who now chairs the State Board of Elections, said the state agency would be ready.

“Both Delegate Hudson’s pilot bill and my friend Patrick Hope’s Arlington-specific measure call for the State Board of Elections to issue regulations and set standards for ranked-choice/instant-runoff voting. Assuming that Gov. Northam signs these bills, the Board and Department of Elections will do all we can to implement this innovative means of encouraging participation in the elections process,” he told the Sun Gazette.

In the end, the whole matter in some ways could be a theoretical exercise – Democrats have such control of Arlington politics at the moment that it seems unlikely the party’s candidates would fall below the 50-percent threshhold in general elections. Typically, Democratic candidates win 60 to 70 percent of the vote even if there are several challengers trying to take votes away from them.

On the other hand, the measure could have a major impact on Democratic County Board primaries, which at times have attracted a crowded field where the winner did not hit the 50-percent mark. Democrats already use instant-runoff voting for party-run caucuses (mostly for School Board seats) but the bill, if signed by the governor, would extend that authority to County Board primaries, which are run by the state government.

Hope’s bill is silent on whether the County Board could, or should, ask the voters to decide for themselves on changing the voting method via a referendum. More likely, board members will make the decision themselves.

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