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Ranked-choice voting could decide County Board nominees in June 2023 primaries

Voting stickers (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Ranked-choice voting could be coming to Arlington as soon as next spring.

But first, the county wants residents to share whether they would like to vote this way for Arlington County Board members. The system, also known as “instant runoff,” prompts voters to rank candidates and a winner is selected over the course of many elimination rounds.

The Board could vote in November to introduce ranked-choice voting (RCV) during the primaries next June.

“In proposing we do this resolution in November, I’m trying to maximize the amount of time for outreach,” Board Chair Katie Cristol said during a meeting on Tuesday. “We probably don’t want to start advertising a new election system before this year’s election, lest we sow confusion.”

The survey of voter preferences went live yesterday (Wednesday). From now until Nov. 4, locals can share any comments and questions they have about RCV, whether they’ve voted that way before and — on a scale of “very unfavorably” to “very favorably” — how they view it.

“I know Board members are still forming their opinions, but I do think there is more appetite for taking on primaries as a pilot,” Cristol said. “We’re all really looking forward to hearing from the community directly.”

Ranked-choice voting graphic (via Arlington County)

She said 2023 is an ideal year to introduce the new system, since two County Board seats will be on the ballot.

“Voters are more likely to see a difference between ranked-choice voting and the traditional system, and learn how the system works,” she said.

Two-seat years already have an element of ranking, said Board Member Libby Garvey. During such races, she said she would ask voters for their second vote if she wasn’t their No. 1 pick.

“So it really keeps you from being too partisan and too negative, which I think will be a very good thing these days,” she said. “It might bring back some civility in our public life, which would be great.”

Proponents also say it helps more moderate candidates get elected while opponents say it confuses voters.

Legally, the Board has until March 22, 2023 to enact RCV for the June 20 primary, Director of Elections Gretchen Reinemeyer tells ARLnow. State law requires a lead time of 90 days.

“Since Ranked Choice Voting could impact someone’s decision to run for office, it’s my understanding that the preference is to determine if RCV will be used in advance of the campaign filing window,” she said in an email. “The filing deadline for candidates is January [to] March.”

The change would only apply to primaries run by the Office of Elections, she said. Early next year, local political parties will declare whether they will pick their nominee via a primary run by Arlington’s election office or a party-run convention.

“If the County Board approves a resolution that the primary in 2023 will use RCV, then that is the only option the parties will have if they choose to have a county-run primary,” she said. “They still have the option to choose to run their own nominating event.”

This time last year, Board members signaled interest in using instant runoff for the 2022 primary but that didn’t happen because Arlington needed the state Department of Elections to update its machines and codify standards for administering elections this way, Cristol said.

Technically, the county has had the ability to enact RCV since 2021. At the request of Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), the state granted Arlington the ability to test out the system one year before other Virginia localities, which were permitted to implement ranked-choice voting on or after July 1, 2022.

Moving forward before the state “would’ve cost us millions of dollars” to buy new machines to process the votes, Cristol said.

Independent candidates for County Board have criticized the decision to wait last year and this year. Candidate Adam Theo has chalked it up to a lack of political will, seeing as the system could make it easier for candidates without a party endorsement to win.

Last fall, the Arlington Electoral Board conducted public engagement with a Q&A and a “mock election,” in which participants used ranked-choice voting to choose their favorite farmers market.

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