Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
A year ago, my fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Mark Kelly, posted a column welcoming the legislative defeat of a bill sponsored by House Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). Hope’s bill would have granted the County Board the option to utilize a ranked-choice (or instant-runoff) voting system in County Board elections.
If you are one of the 16 percent of Arlington voters who backed Donald Trump for President in 2016, or one of the 15 percent who voted for Corey Stewart for the U.S. Senate in 2018, you probably wouldn’t like ranked-choice voting. But, if you were not one of those Arlington voters, you might welcome ranked-choice voting.
This year, Patrick Hope tried again, and state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District) introduced his own version of similar legislation that “would have allowed localities to adopt ranked-choice voting for boards of supervisors and city councils, starting in 2020.” Neither bill succeeded.
What is ranked-choice voting?
Voters in ranked-choice voting elections can rank the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate gets the majority, that candidate wins, just like our current system in state-sponsored elections. If one candidate doesn’t get the majority, losing candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated one by one, and ballots for losing candidates are redistributed to second and subsequent choices until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority.
Ranked-choice voting is better than our current alternative (winner-take-all voting)
The current electoral system in place in state-sponsored elections in Arlington is a winner-take-all (or first-past-the-post) system. The person with the most votes wins — even in a large, multi-candidate field in which most votes go to someone other than the winner.
Patrick Hope offered a very persuasive set of reasons last year in support of his bill, including:
- decreased likelihood that fringe or extreme candidates would be elected
- increased likelihood that a candidate would command greater respect from a broader group of the electorate
- increased likelihood that the election campaign would be more positive and civil
Similar reasons have been given by the Arlington County Democratic Committee to support its choice of instant-runoff voting (IRV) for party-organized caucuses.
In last year’s column, Mark Kelly tried to refute Hope’s reasons. But, in a series of very extensive comments they posted to Kelly’s column, frequent ARLnow commenters dave schutz and dudeguy01 provided detailed reasons why they believed Arlington voters would be better off in both primary and general elections for County Board if those elections were conducted under ranked-choice voting. All their comments are worth reading, but here is a small sampling of some of what they had to say:
dudeguy01 Mark … says it will make it harder for Republicans or Independents to win, but the only explanation he gives is that Arlington leans heavily Democratic. He never explains why that obstacle is more severe under an instant runoff system… Instant runoff … may not result in MORE or LESS Dems winning, but I think it has a mighty good chance of resulting in BETTER Dems winning….
dave schutz [I]t is healthier for the polity over time if the system makes it easier for a variety of opinions to make it onto the Board….
dave schutz I’m actually sort of a Mark Kelly fan, but I’m pretty clear he is wrong on several fronts, here. Start with [the] civility goal…I heard a LOT of disappointment with the tone and level in the Garvey-Gutshall contest, which was a first-past-the-post primary. The next Dem nomination, Klingler-Patil-Gutshall-Fallon [an ACDC caucus conducted under IRV] was far more emollient.
Ranked-choice voting is an option the Virginia legislature ought to give Arlington. If we get it, the Board ought to adopt it for County Board elections.
Academics have thought a lot about voting systems and concluded that none is perfect — but that ranked-choice does a lot better than first-past-the-post in the case of a candidate like Trump.
County Board is a good place to start. The Arlington Voter Registrar has advised that with relatively minor tweaks to its software, and an effective voter education program, we can implement ranked-choice voting.
Let’s encourage Del. Hope and Sen. Ebbin to re-introduce their bills in the 2020 legislative session.
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.