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How ranked-choice voting helped the County Board primary results reflect a divided electorate

Voters and Arlington County Board Democratic nominees Susan Cunningham and Maureen Coffey watch the tabulation process on Friday, June 23, 2023 in Courthouse (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 12:35 p.m.) Ranked-choice voting may have helped voters nominate a “split” Democratic ticket for Arlington County Board — at least when it comes to Missing Middle.

Last week, in relatively robust turnout for a primary in a non-presidential year, Maureen Coffey and Susan Cunningham received the Democratic nomination. Some 28,897 ballots were cast, up from 19,958 in 2015, the last time with two open seats and no incumbents on the ballot.

The Democratic duo are split, for and against, on the zoning code update allowing 2-6 unit buildings on lots previously zoned for single-family homes. Local elections buffs say the ideological diversity on this “split ticket” is a perk of ranked-choice voting that reflects the will of voters, even if it occasionally surprised observers.

“If we had used the simpler method of representation — of winner-takes-all — we most likely would have had two Democratic nominees who had the same position on Missing Middle,” says Jeremy Mayer, associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

The two departing Board members, Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey, strongly supported the changes. This time around, voters have chosen Cunningham, who called it a “mess,” and Coffey who, while generally supportive, criticized it for lacking cohesion with other housing policies.

It appears this election may be a stronger referendum on Missing Middle than the 2022 race. Incumbent Matt de Ferranti ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and bested two independents with 60% of votes last fall, campaigning on a middling view of the zoning changes.

This time, the leaderboard was not clear cut. Despite “anti” Missing Middle candidates leading at first, realtor Natalie Roy lost to Coffey, who picked up votes from eliminated “pro” Missing Middle candidates.

This result “much more accurately reflects the opinions of Democrat-leaning Arlingtonians,” said Mayer, a lifelong Arlingtonian. “That’s a good thing for democracy.”

Ranked-choice voting tempered the influence of the Democratic establishment, he and former Arlington County Civic Federation President Allan Gajadhar said. Democrats had full control of the Arlington County Board for years until 2014, when Republican John Vihstadt joined the Board as an independent, and have had it since 2018, when de Ferranti beat him.

This year, the Democratic establishment coalesced around Julius “JD” Spain, Sr., who nabbed endorsements from County Board members Takis Karantonis and de Ferranti, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, state Sen. Barbara Favola, and others. He was eliminated in the fourth tabulation round.

Cunningham, meanwhile, had support from some well-known Democrats as well as people outside the party, like Vihstadt, who last year supported independent and outspoken Missing Middle critic Audrey Clement. Cunningham also had the support of Board Vice-Chair Libby Garvey, who endorsed Vihstadt in 2014.

“In a place with a dominant faction, it does broaden the base of the people who can get elected beyond the party control mechanisms,” Gajadhar said. “In this case, it was one issue, Missing Middle. In other elections… [there could be] not just a diversity of ideas but of people who could conceivably run and be successful.”

Former county treasurer turned amateur election pundit Frank O’Leary sees a common thread between Garvey’s support for Cunningham amid doubts about Missing Middle and her alliance with Vihstadt against the Columbia Pike streetcar. He does not, however, predict the downfall of Missing Middle if Cunningham and Garvey join forces.

“I suspect it will be peace and harmony on the County Board,” he said.

The housing connection was not lost Ankit Jain, an associate attorney for the Sierra Club, who analyzed the outcome in a series of tweets, noting that “almost every voter used their rankings to full effect.”

With the new voting style came new opportunities for data lovers to visualize the results.

On Friday, Fair Vote Virginia published an interactive graphic showing how rankings were distributed, based on preliminary results.

One elections enthusiast depicted the myriad rankings submitted that sometimes defied the Missing Middle paradigm, blending pro-Missing Middle candidates Jonathan Dromgoole or Spain with Roy or Cunningham.

The same creator showed how candidates performed by precinct.

After the primary, the County Board could — on July 15 — decide to adopt ranked-choice voting for November.

Gajadhar, who was on the CivFed task force that recommended the County Board adopt ranked-choice voting last year, wants to see this happen. He also wants to see a more robust voter education campaign and new machines that can rank six or more candidates — compared to the current three.

“That might have conceivably changed how it worked and the outcome,” he said.

The Board has discussed buying wider machines but this may have debatable impact in Arlington, where no more than two seats are up at a time, compared to jurisdictions where a full slate of council-members or supervisors are chosen every cycle.

Arlington Electoral Board Secretary Scott McGeary says other jurisdictions may not be far behind as, from a procedural standpoint, this election worked well.

A Republican-introduced bill this session could have expanded ranked-choice voting beyond Boards of Supervisors to constitutional offices such as Sheriff and Commonwealth’s Attorney, he said.

It died in committee this year because “they decided… to see what happened in Arlington,” McGeary said.

“The eyes of the Commonwealth were on Arlington,” he said. “Next session, members can consider if they want to expand it.”

That is what Joan Porte, President of the League of Women Voters of Arlington and the City of Alexandria, says she wants to see.

“I hope it becomes the norm in all localities in the Commonwealth and the Arlington County Board allows it for the November elections,” she said.

Whether ranked-choice wins or loses next month, O’Leary has a more modest victory this election: a 16.6% turnout rate.

“Everyone thinks turnout was abysmal. That’s because they haven’t been paying attention,” he said. “Maybe we’re moving in the right direction.”

This November, Cunningham and Coffey are poised to face perennial independent Audrey Clement and Republican Juan Carlos Fierro.

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