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An update in the ‘wide open’ Arlington County Board race could come this afternoon

Arlingtonians could have an update on the results of the Arlington County Board Democratic primary as soon as this afternoon, according to the local elections office.

“We will be accepting about 500 mail and provisional ballots today and results will be uploaded throughout the afternoon,” says spokeswoman Tania Griffin. “We’ll also have an update regarding the [ranked-choice voting] tabulation later this afternoon as well.”

For the first time, Arlington voters used a ranked-choice system to pick their top candidates for the County Board, which has two open seats this year. The outcome will come down to who voters ranked second and third place.

It is a squeaker so far for Susan Cunningham, Natalie Roy, Maureen Coffey and Julius “J.D.” Spain, whose tally of first-choice votes are within a range of only 5 percentage points from most to least.

“This race is still wide open,” said Liz White, the executive director of UpVote Virginia, which has been educating residents about ranked-choice voting ahead of the primary.

“Four out of the six candidates could very well secure a win once subsequent rounds are tabulated,” she said in an email. “Round-by-round tabulation will occur as soon as all provisional and mail ballots are processed. Once all votes are processed, the tabulation is instantaneous.”

How Arlington County Board candidates ended Tuesday night with Round 1 votes in (via Virginia Dept. of Elections)

No candidate crossed the threshold for early victory: 33.3% of the first-choice votes, plus one vote.  The next step will be eliminating the lowest vote getters, in order. Who people picked after first ranking Jonathan Dromgoole and Tony Weaver could get any of the four other candidates past the finish line.

Cunningham, who took the lead in the first round of votes, tells ARLnow she has made peace with whatever happens next. Coffey, who currently sits in third place, says she is “on pins and needles” waiting for the results.

Political consultant Ben Tribbett is placing his bets that those who ranked Dromgoole first likely ranked Coffey or Spain next.

“When you get to the actual ranking of candidates, I think the third and fourth-place candidates are going to go on to win the election,” Tribbett said. “I would expect in that first round, that Maureen is going to win. There’s a chance Susan Cunningham could hold off J.D. in the second round.”

On Tuesday, County Board member Takis Karantonis — who endorsed Coffey and Spain — said Coffey performed well on a per campaign dollar spent basis. Meanwhile Spain, who had racked up several endorsements and raised substantial funds, underperformed, which he called a “sobering result.”

Looking precinct by precinct, it is clear that each of the candidates had a base. The more urban places with younger voters went for Coffey, while single-family home enclaves went for Cunningham and Roy, who were most critical of the zoning changes known as Missing Middle.

Arlington County Board Democratic Primary Round 1 votes by precinct (by Jo DeVoe)

Spain told ARLnow on Tuesday night that he enjoyed strong support in his neighborhood, Penrose, while noting more confrontations with upset voters above Langston Blvd.

“We won the most diverse precincts in Arlington,” he said. “[I’m] proud of that.”

Tribbett was more blunt about what he saw as the electoral dynamic, citing the geographic distribution of votes in the Commonwealth’s Attorney race in particular.

“It’s the Karens versus the non-Karens,” he said. “Clearly, there’s a divide in the community that jumps out at you.”

“When that divide crosses over into multiple races and they follow the same pattern of results, even when fought on different issues… it tells you this is a lot more about different visions for the community than it is about any individual issue,” Tribbett added.

Geographic distribution of votes for Commonwealth’s Attorney on Election Day (via Virginia Public Access Project)

Some Democrats disagree with that assessment.

“This was more about issues than a dividing line,” State Sen. Barbara Favola told ARLnow on Tuesday. “People voted for me and Josh Katcher or for pro- and anti-Missing Middle Housing candidates. They looked at what the candidates stood for and delivered on.”

Cunningham says ranked-choice voting helped community members have more nuanced conversations about top issues, including Missing Middle. Still, what troubles her is that local politics conversations are mostly carried out “in headlines and sound bites.”

“As leaders, we need to help the community have a deeper conversation, and, as community members, we need to engage in it,” she said. “The ones who were most vocal or visible were trying to simplify the message.”

That tendency obfuscates what Favola said is true of local Democrats: they want similar things and share a core value of lifting everybody up.

Roy, who described herself as a lifelong, civically engaged Democrat, had a more bittersweet view. One comment — someone calling her a Republican and questioning who vetted her — got under her skin.

“It’s like your own party is beating you up,” she said on Tuesday in her home, which had a sign for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and, for many months, an oversized Hillary Clinton sign.

“I felt like my own party was not as supportive as it could have been,” she continued. “I felt like there should be a big tent.”

But not too big of a tent, says Spain. He says he observed some “non-traditional Democrats” hit the polls, including one woman he talked to who said she was not a Democrat and voted for Cunningham.

“I would like to see Arlington Democrats go to a closed primary process so only Democrats are elected,” he said. “Having anyone vote, that’s not good for the party long term.”

Arlington Democrats has not taken a position on having an open or a closed primary, we’re told. It has technology to profile whether participating voters may be more likely to lean Republican or independent, based on several indicators. At least this time around, those tracking that data say “crossover” participation is low.

Discontented voters will have alternatives in November, as perennial independent Audrey Clement and Republican Juan Carlos Fierro have qualified for the County Board ballot.

After results trickle in and the dust clears, next month Arlington County Board members will receive a report breaking down how ranked-choice voting worked. That analysis, along with community feedback, will inform their decision of whether to use the voting method again in the November general election.

Even after the “massive education process” leading up to the primary, Karantonis said, “we have a ways to go in educating the public.”

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