It’s a major change in elections that could be coming to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ races in the future. And in neighboring Arlington, “instant-runoff” voting has snagged its inaugural victim.
Barbara Kanninen earlier this month became the first Arlington political candidate to fall to a come-from-behind challenger in instant-runoff (or “ranked-choice”) voting, a way of casting ballots that soon could become an option in some races across Virginia, including Fairfax County.
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. Under traditional voting processes, that would have made her the victor.
But with just 31 percent of the vote, Kanninen fell well short of the 50-percent-plus-one total that instant-runoff requires, kicking in a 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 in the first round, picked up the vast majority of second- and third-place votes of those initially supporting low-scoring 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 Arlington County Board member Erik Gutshall, who died in April. 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.
Virginia 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 as soon as 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.
The General Assembly enabling legislation, shepherded through Richmond by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), 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 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors would have to vote to implement instant-runoff voting on its own authority, a power some critics might contend could create an inherent conflict of interest. No community referendum is required to implement the change, although holding one is not prohibited, either.
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.
Should Fairfax County eventually move to instant-runoff voting, the biggest impact may be on primaries, where multi-candidate fields of viable contenders are more frequent than during general-election contests.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors’ seats will next be on the ballot in 2023.