In the primary election next June, registered voters will be able to rank their preferred candidates for a seat on the Arlington County Board.
The change comes after the Arlington County Board unanimously endorsed testing out ranked-choice voting for County Board elections on Saturday.
“This reform alone will not be sufficient to overcome… the forces trying to undermine our democratic traditions,” Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “Nevertheless, I think this is worth trying. I hope that we can not only excite Arlington voters about the potential, give them an opportunity to express the full range of their preferences, but also provide a model to other communities.”
The Board’s decision makes Arlington the first locality in Virginia to move forward on adopting ranked-choice voting.
UpVote Virginia, a newly formed nonpartisan organization that supports changes like ranked-choice voting, celebrated the move.
“It’s not everyday in Virginia you can say you were the first to do something, but this resolution truly does signify a historic opportunity,” UpVote Virginia Executive Director Liz White said. “Looking forward, we hope your example today will set the stage for other localities across the Commonwealth.”
The change, which would only apply to primaries run by the county’s Office of Elections, comes months ahead of the primary. Legally, the Board has until March 22, 2023 to enact RCV for the June 20 primary.
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.
According to White, the method has bipartisan support.
“Even longtime political rivals have found common ground in support of ranked-choice voting,” she told the Board on Saturday. “At UpVote Virginia’s launch event in August, we heard remarks in favor of RCV from your very own Democratic Congressman Don Beyer and former Gov. George Allen, a Republican. It’s not often you get those two speaking at the same event, but that really encapsulates how broad RCV’s appeal can be.”
And in Arlington, a recently closed survey that netted 786 responses found that the majority of respondents support the change.
Per the survey, support fluctuated some based on zip code. Support was weakest in the 22207 zip code — residential northern Arlington, which trends a bit more conservative than the rest of deep blue Arlington — where 63% of 152 residents support it. That compared with 75% of 177 residents in the 22201 zip code, which includes part of the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor.
Other zip codes with smaller response rates had higher favorability rates.
The potential change comes on the heels of other voting reforms enacted by the state, including expanded access to absentee ballots, new automatic and same-day voter registration and new legislative maps.
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.”
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.
The Arlington County and School boards would be more competitive and diverse if they were bigger, better-paid and elected via ranked-choice voting, says a group of community leaders and former elected officials.
For about two years, members of the Arlington County Civic Federation Task Force in Government and Election Reform (TiGER) considered how to improve county politics by meeting with community members and hearing from other jurisdictions.
TiGER suggests elections where voters rank candidates by preference, with winners selected over the course of elimination rounds. It recommends expanding the five-member County and School boards to seven, paying them more, and electing three to four members every two years. To increase the boards’ sway in the region, chairs would have two-year terms, with the possibility for a second term.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now to improve both the electoral and governance systems of the county to ensure that both the County Board and School Board better represent our diverse community as well as promote effective citizen engagement with our county government,” Allan Gajadhar, TiGER chair and immediate past president of CivFed, told the Arlington Committee of 100 last week.
Some of these ideas are already on the table: Early next year, the Arlington County Board could consider ranked-choice voting, which Virginia has allowed since July 2021. Meanwhile, $20,000 raises for County Board members were part of the Fiscal Year 2023 county budget (for the School Board, wages sit at only $25,000 for members and $27,000 for the chair).
Instead, some attendees were interested in bigger changes, including one TiGER ultimately dismissed: district-based representation.
They pressed Gajadhar and another TiGER member, former School Board Chair Tannia Talento, to explain why redistricting won’t work. They asked if Arlington should become a city with a mayor, or if voters should elect the County Manager, who the County Board appoints.
One asked whether chairs should be elected for four-year terms, not chosen by sitting board members to lead for one year. Another expressed interest in setting aside a County Board seat or two for members of non-dominant political parties.
Problems facing Arlington today
TiGER levied heavy criticism of Arlington’s political landscape. It said the County and School boards do not adequately reflect the the county’s racial and ethnic, socioeconomic and viewpoint diversity, in part because Arlington has had five-person boards since 1930, despite the population being eight times larger today.
Elections don’t ensure proportional representation, encourage the most qualified and diverse candidates or provide competitive races in general elections, it said. Primaries and caucuses discourage people from running and voting and prevent federal employees from running.
These critiques are shared by independent County Board candidates and skeptics of how the Arlington County Democratic Party endorses candidates for the non-partisan School Board. Those who lose the caucus in the spring agree not to run unaffiliated in November, making the end result similar to a primary.
Waitlists, error messages and a call line 90 people deep thwarted Arlington residents’ attempts to enroll in spring classes through the parks department this morning (Wednesday).
The Department of Parks and Recreation offers a variety of classes in the spring, fall and winter that range from gymnastics and swimming to ceramics and jewelry making. The classes for kids are particularly popular with local parents. And registration day system failures — like those from opening day of summer camp registration — are not new for these classes, either.
Some compared the registration process to “getting front row Bruce Springsteen tickets” — to wit, “stressful and horrible.” Others likened it to the summer camp sign-up drama three weeks ago.
This happens every time. It just happened with summer camps. It is truly inequitable that parents are expected to spend 60-90 minutes while the system times out to access these classes. You have to fix this.
— Nicki (@oryelle) March 16, 2022
After summer camp registration crashed immediately upon opening the morning of Feb. 23 — despite attempts to beef up the platform in advance — parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish said the platform vendor conducted “tests and improvements that should have resulted in a smooth registration” on Wednesday morning.
That did not happen.
“This morning, Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation saw slower than desired response times for the spring ENJOY Arlington class registration,” she said. “Even though we staggered class registration start times and limited user search capabilities, our vendor’s registration system could not handle the high registration volume.”
While the number of people competing for spots was high, it was still on par with prior first-day enrollments, she said.
Registration opened for gymnastics classes at 7 a.m., aquatics classes at 7:30 a.m., and all other classes at 8 a.m. Residents reported struggling to get their preferences despite having their fingers poised over their keyboards ahead of time.
After 90 minutes, I have successfully registered two kids for swim classes on two different nights of the week, and my third child is waitlisted. 90 minutes. I was sitting in front of my computer, class numbers in hand, at 7:25am.
— Brooke Oberwetter (@brookeOB1) March 16, 2022
DPR encouraged people to call the office for assistance with registration. The line was quickly swamped with callers, and while they waited, the online platform timed people out.
The line had 79 people on hold when I tried & I was booted out of the online system at least a dozen times before I gave up. Friends report the same. This system is failing working parents and all but ensures those most in need of affordable options for their kids won’t get it.
— Maggie Bush (@dcmaggieb) March 16, 2022
Those looking to enroll in just one class said even that was impossible.
Tried to register exactly at 8 am. Only wanted 1 class. Constant error messages. Called help line. 90th in line. 40 minutes later was told over the phone we were waitlisted. System thought we were non-arlington residents even though our account address was in arlington. Very mad
— Kevin Muse (@KevinMu39953916) March 16, 2022
Following today’s issues, some repeated their calls on the parks department to fix the system, or change it to a lottery process. Under that system, parents would not have to wake up early and register at lightning speed, but it would add uncertainty to their kids’ schedules.
An unscientific ARLnow poll found 41% of respondents support a lottery system, while 58% said DPR ought to keep the current process but get better technology or a new vendor. At least one resident suggested Arlington look to the tech giant Amazon, currently building its second headquarters in Pentagon City.
Perhaps our new neighbor @amazon can do something for @ArlingtonVA taxpayers and residents by providing a registration system that is performant under high load @awscloud @amazonnews
— verycaroline (@verycaroline) March 16, 2022
Last month, Board Chair Katie Cristol issued a statement responding to and echoing parent frustrations with the process for getting into camp. She said the Board told County Manager Mark Schwartz and department leaders it expects a “full reform of registration.”
She reiterated those sentiments in a statement to ARLnow Wednesday morning.
“We’re disappointed and frustrated, and this highlights the need for the total redesign of the registration process to which DPR has committed,” she said of today’s issues.
DPR will start reviewing its processes and solutions this spring, Kalish said.
A plan for improvements to next year’s registration process could be ready by September, DPR’s Director Jane Rudolph told the County Board yesterday (Tuesday) during a work session on the upcoming 2022-23 budget.
She told the Board that preventing future breakdowns “is our highest department-wide priority.”
“As we know, the issue goes beyond just a technology solution,” she said. “We have a high demand and not enough supply for certain camps and for certain age groups.”
DPR is looking into increasing slots where demand is greatest: options for older toddlers and elementary school-aged kids, as well as sports and robotics programs, Rudolph said.
The local NAACP is calling on the Arlington County Board to do more to encourage affordable homeownership opportunities for residents of color.
Although segregation officially ended last century, the Arlington branch of the NAACP says non-white residents are still effectively excluded from some neighborhoods due to county zoning codes, compounded by rising housing costs.
“The widespread single-family zoning scheme that prevents the construction of new housing in affluent, mostly white neighborhoods also worsens racial segregation by confining the construction of new affordable housing units to the Columbia Pike corridor and other parts of Arlington with large non-white populations,” the NAACP wrote in a letter to the county.
“People of color wishing to live in Arlington deserve meaningful opportunities to choose from a wide variety of housing types, in many parts of the county, at a reasonable cost,” the letter continues.
The NAACP says the county needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy to reform the county’s zoning laws and housing policies. It suggests reforms that go beyond those being considered in the Missing Middle Housing Study.
“We support the County’s many studies and other initiatives to promote affordable housing,” it concludes. “The best way to ensure the success of these initiatives is for the County Board and County Manager to show decisive leadership now and commit to supporting comprehensive zoning reform.”
Through Missing Middle, the county is considering whether and what kind of low-density multifamily housing could fit into single-family home neighborhoods. The county says allowing more housing types in these neighborhoods can reverse the lingering impacts of yesteryear’s racist zoning policies.
“The Missing Middle Housing Study has documented the role that Arlington’s land use and zoning policies have played in contributing to racial disparities in housing and access to opportunity,” says Erika Moore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. “Conducting the Missing Middle Housing Study is one of many deliberate choices the County is making to address the mistakes of the past and pave a new path for Arlington’s future.”
While supportive of the study, the NAACP suggests solutions beyond its parameters.
It recommends every redevelopment be assessed for whether it would perpetuate historical exclusion or displace the existing community. If so, developers would have to use a “displacement prevention and mitigation toolkit” to reverse those impacts.
This toolkit could include:
- property tax deferrals for lower-income homeowners
- funding for Community Land Trust acquisitions
- preferences for first-generation homebuyers
- stabilization funds for residents at risk of displacement
The toolkit would “address the unique needs of and the displacement risk experienced by the community in and around site-plan and by-right developments while also helping to address patterns of historical exclusion experienced by members of protected classes,” the letter says.
These and other tools should also receive county and state funding, like a quick-strike land acquisition account, which would be used to quickly purchase properties for affordable housing development, and targeted homeownership assistance programs, the NAACP says.
Elections in Arlington County could change dramatically in the coming years.
First, County Board members are considering whether to do away with first-past-the-post voting for their seats and replace it with ranked-choice voting (RCV). And second, a 16-person bipartisan commission is redrawing boundaries for Virginia’s congressional, state Senate and House of Delegates districts, replacing the former redistricting process led by the state legislature.
As early as a 2022 primary, Arlingtonians could rank their picks for a County Board seat. They are also likely to see one fewer delegate and state senator representing the county.
During a Tuesday County Board meeting, county elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer fielded questions from members about implementing, calculating and educating the public about ranked-choice voting and previewed how the 2020 U.S. Census could impact Arlington’s electoral districts.
A few Board members expressed their support for the system, also known as “instant runoff,” which selects a winner over the course of many elimination rounds.
“I think it does lead to much healthier campaigns and conversations,” Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol said. “If your second choice is on the Board, making choices on your behalf, even if your first choice isn’t, I think that increases your tie to, and hopefully faith in, government,” she said.
Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said the system could fix issues in Arlington’s electoral process, but he requested more expert input before making a decision.
“Many in our community have said, ‘We don’t just want one party,'” he said. “For me, it would help [to understand] the math and then [lift] up the values that we want in our elections.”
Arlington’s ‘test run’
The County Board is expected to decide if RCV it applies to elections for their own seats, and whether it would be used in primaries, the general election, or both.
In 2020, the General Assembly gave municipalities the go-ahead to use ranked-choice voting locally, effective July 1, 2022. At the request of Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), it granted Arlington the ability to test out the system one year in advance.
So far, the county hasn’t taken advantage of this extra time, drawing criticism from this year’s independent candidates for County Board. They say the reform — although it wouldn’t apply this November — would add political diversity to the Board.
“That’s the plot by which some people in our community believe [we] have failed to act,” Board Member Christian Dorsey said.
Reinemeyer said due to an overlooked provision in electoral codes, Arlington couldn’t do anything until the state Board of Elections drafted ballot standards and tabulating rules.
School Board races are exempt both from Hope’s Arlington-specific law and the statewide one. Hope says he couldn’t find support for RCV among School Board members at the time. Still, Hope said he and Del. Sally Hudson (D-57), a sponsor of the statewide bill, are open to including School Boards if ranked-choice voting proves popular.
“I’d be open to bringing a bill in 2022 to expand ranked choice voting that would just apply to the Arlington School Board,” he said. “It could serve as a model for the rest of the Commonwealth.”
Local candidates offered differing takes on police oversight and demographic disparities in public schools during a candidate forum last night.
The Arlington branch of the NAACP hosted Monday’s forum, featuring the four Arlington County Board candidates — incumbent and Democrat Takis Karantonis and independents Mike Cantwell, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo — as well as School Board candidates Mary Kadera and former Congressional candidate Major Mike Webb.
More than 100 people were in virtual attendance.
The forum addressed two dozen issues facing the county and its communities of color. County Board topics ranged from support for minority-owned businesses to accountability for developers that neighbors say violate construction terms. Schools topics spanned the unequal distribution of Parent-Teacher Association resources to improving outcomes for students of color.
But the sharpest distinctions among County Board candidates came out during a discussion of the powers endowed to the new police oversight board.
This summer, the Arlington County Board established a Community Oversight Board (COB) with subpoena power and authorized the hiring of an Independent Policing Auditor able to investigate community complaints about police officers. The decision, came amid sharp disagreements over whether board had too much, or too little, authority.
“The overall perception from many of the members, [and] people I know who are not NAACP members… is that the board is aligned with interests that are not the ones that the community is telling you we want,” said moderator Wilma Jones Kilgo.
When asked if the COB aligns with their visions, only Karantonis said it did.
“It aligned mostly with [my] vision,” Karantonis said. “We now have to nominate the board, make it work, fund it and staff it.”
Cantwell said the board shouldn’t have subpoena power or investigatory power.
“Elections are where you should hold people accountable,” he said. “You should hold the current County Board, who appoints the County Manager and the police chief, accountable, and vote them out.”
But Theo and Clement said the Community Oversight Board isn’t independent enough.
“I’m glad we got the subpoena power, but it fails utterly with not being able to properly investigate and not being able to follow through with discipline,” Theo said. “It needs to be independent. Right now, it’s still under the County Manager, that isn’t enough.”
Clement, who supports giving the board subpoena power, nonetheless called it “a toothless tiger.”
“In situations where the oversight board exercises concurrent jurisdiction with the police department in a personnel matter, I believe COB should have binding authority, as the likelihood of the police chief honoring a recommendation of the COB that goes against his own decision is nil,” she said.
She also expressed concern that the County Manager, who hires the police chief, also hires the independent auditor.
Later, Karantonis said the County Board has put some pressure on the state to change the law that gives Arlington the power to hire a police auditor.
“It is a flaw that the County Manager formally chooses this person,” he said. “We have asked the General Assembly to change that and fix other flaws in this [provision].”
Meanwhile, Jones pressed Clement and Theo on other issues they raised related to policing and the criminal justice system.
For nearly one year, Arlington County has studied whether the zoning code should be rewritten to allow low-to-moderate density housing types like duplexes in more neighborhoods.
The initiative is dubbed the “Missing Middle Housing Study.” It refers to mid-sized housing types, such as duplexes, triplexes, quads and townhomes, which are denser than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment or condo building.
The county says adding homes in the “Missing Middle” could tackle a local housing shortage. Since its launch, the study has been debated in panels and County Board candidate forums and referenced in discussions about changing zoning ordinances that have hurt some duplex owners.
But something simple may be hindering public perception of the study: the name.
“Everybody assumes it has to do with affordability… and they hang their own viewpoints on that,” said Jim Lantelme, who chairs the Planning Commission.
Speaking on behalf of himself as a resident, Lantelme says a name change may help people disassociate “Missing Middle” and affordable housing, which are separate (but related) issues. He presented this idea to during a joint Planning Commission-County Board meeting last week.
“Missing Middle, for whatever reason, people have a negative reaction right off the bat,” he tells ARLnow. “Why go off a name that’s closing off minds, rather than one that encourages dialogue — one that people have an open mind toward? By renaming it, we might have a better dialogue without having to overcome misapprehensions.”
The county is primarily examining whether different forms of housing can blend into existing, single-family home neighborhoods. The goal is a greater variety and supply of housing, including units that are less expensive than single-family homes but not necessarily affordable to those making well below the area median income in the same way as dedicated affordable housing.
Whether “Missing Middle” housing can be purchased by people in different income brackets depends on size, location and market forces, says Elise Cleva, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.
To uncouple “Missing Middle” and affordability, Lantelme suggested names that clarify the study’s exploration of form. He pointed to “Low-Rise,” the name Los Angeles gave to its effort to add more low-rise multi-family buildings to the city.
“Why hobble yourself at the front, when you can try to get a term that is more accurate, that doesn’t have the connotations that people seem to be associating Missing Middle with, which is affordability,” he said.
Cleva said CPHD is also picking up on a disconnect. Over the next few months, during targeted engagement with members of harder-to-reach populations, she said CPHD will debut a clarifying tagline.
“In our interactions with them, we’ll be using a new tagline for the study, ‘Expanding Housing Choice’ and also continuing to articulate that the term ‘Missing Middle’ describes the size and type of a home — in the middle of a spectrum of housing options ranging from single detached homes to mid- and high-rise apartments and condos,” Cleva said.
She says CPHD is trying to address some misconceptions that resulted from a lack of engagement with certain populations.
“Basically, while we’ve reached many people, our engagement data thus far shows that there are many we have not reached, especially among renters and populations that have historically had less access to participate in planning processes,” she said. “It follows then that people we have not had a chance to dialogue with about the study may be unclear about its purpose and scope.”
On the question of renaming the study, Cleva said it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
“[We] remain open to the possibility of renaming the study, should we continue to receive feedback about the name causing confusion,” she said.
This week, a Marymount University graduate working in tech is packing up and moving to Dublin, Ireland.
He didn’t expect — or want — to leave his home on the border of Arlington and Falls Church this way.
Hansel D’Souza, 25, is an Indian national who was born and raised in Kuwait who now works for a tech company. He has been in Virginia since 2014, when he arrived on an F1 student visa to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology at Marymount. There, he dove into theater, student affairs and campus ministry.
“I was everywhere at the same time, wearing lots of hats,” he said. “People asked me, ‘Is there any job you don’t do?”
He programmed backstage lighting and sounds for the campus theater club, the McLean Community Players and the Little Theatre of Alexandria. With the campus ministry group, he went to Louisa, Kentucky for a service project and returned as a camp counselor for a few summers, watching campers graduate high school and go to college.
His extracurricular resume may be impressive — but none of his positions or volunteer work mattered when it came to seeking an H1B visa to continue working in the U.S. in his specialized field, which selects 65,000 people a year through a lottery. Up to 20,000 additional people can get this visa if they’ve earned a master’s degree or higher.
“This is not a merit-based system,” said James Montana, an attorney at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm in Arlington. “The question is, do you have a degree that is related to the proposed work in a specialty field? An individual can do nothing to increase his chances — other than get a master’s, which is an awfully expensive way to increase them.”
D’Souza said his frustration with the H1B process, which wrote about in a Medium post, is that it whittled him down to a number in a lottery.
“Seven years of hard work, putting myself out there, making this place my home, building relationships, just came down to a lottery process,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one. I know a handful of other people going through it — and there are thousands of others across the country in similar situations every year.”
Indians in the U.S. face particular hurdles. In recent years, members of the diaspora living in the United States have protested a 150-year backlog in green cards, caused by a policy capping the number of Indians who can come to the U.S., and a coronavirus-induced excess of green cards that could go to waste despite this backlog.
Many Indian immigrants advocate for the cap to be lifted and for the immigration process to consider their technical skills instead.
As for D’Souza, he says he considered getting a master’s degree to increase his chances of staying. But after four years of tuition, and room and board, a master’s represented a financial lift he said he couldn’t justify, especially since he saw people advance in his field without one.
“Unfortunately, the world has gotten to a point where people are doing more degrees to check boxes on resume, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said.
It is too late for D’Souza, who departs tomorrow night (Wednesday), but he said he wants to elevate the voices of “international students and working professionals just like me.” He wants the Americans he knows to understand how complex immigrating to the U.S. is, as well.
“Immigration needs to change,” he said. “I’m hoping more people will realize it’s not all rose-colored glasses.”
Arlington County will hold a mock election tomorrow (Tuesday) to test out ranked-choice voting.
Voting will be open to the public from 2-4 p.m at the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd). Those interested can then attend a second session from 5 -7 p.m to witness the process by which the ballots are counted.
The county will use the mock election to get feedback from voters on ballot layout, voting instructions, and on “tabulation scenarios,” officials said.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballot. Advocates for the system say that it leads to elections that are less negative and reduces the chance of an extreme candidate being elected, compared to a traditional winner-takes-all format. Some communities have ditched the election format after adopting it, however.
Arlington County and other Virginia localities have state authorization from the General Assembly to try out ranked-choice voting, but so far the county has held back from adopting it. Regulations are still being finalized by the state and are unlikely to be ready in time for an election until 2022, the Sun Gazette reports.
At a County Board meeting on July 17, proponents for the election system expressed frustration about the lack of progress in the transition to ranked-choice voting. In response, Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol noted that the mechanics of ranked-choice voting were “complicated,” according to the Sun Gazette.
Earlier in the year, the Arlington County Civic Federation held Zoom meetings to discuss county voting reforms, chief among them ranked-choice voting.
Although not yet in use by the County Board, the Arlington County Democratic Committee does use ranked-choice voting to decide its nominations for government seats.
Last May, the ranked-choice system propelled Takis Karantonis to victory in the Democratic primary, even though his opponent Barbara Kanninen, who now chairs the School Board, collected the most first-preference votes. Karantonis went on to win the special election to fill Erik Gutshall’s County Board seat in a landslide over his Republican and independent opponents.
“The Arlington Democrats have been using Ranked Choice Voting for our internal endorsement and nomination processes for several years, seeing a strong value in identifying the candidate that draws the broadest support from Democratic voters,” said Maggie Davis, deputy chairperson of Arlington Dems, after the Democratic primary last year.
At a statewide level, Virginia’s Republican Party embraced ranked-choice voting this May, using the system to nominate Glenn Youngkin as their candidate for governor.
Hat tip to Dave Schutz
Arlington County’s form of government has largely stayed the same since 1930. Now, a local civic organization is inviting Arlingtonians to consider possible reforms.
The Arlington County Civic Federation, a nonprofit that provides a forum for about 90 civic groups to discuss community topics, is holding a series of Zoom meetings to discuss reforms, from changing the number of County Board members and their term limits to moving to ward-based Board representation to using ranked-choice voting.
“We are excited to engage in this important work of exploring ways to make our already well-functioning government even better and more representative of the communities it serves,” said Chris Wimbush, who chairs the subgroup looking into these changes.
That subgroup is the Task Force in Governance and Election Reform (TiGER), which was formed to look into implementing ranked-choice voting and other electoral reforms. CivFed launched the group after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing ranked-choice voting in local elections.
The committee’s deep dive includes these discussions, which kicked off May 17 and will continue every Monday through July, except Memorial Day. These meetings will evaluate the current state of Arlington elections, its form of government and public input structures, as well as models for reform.
“Arlington citizens can expect that the TiGER will, over the next year, conduct public fora and meetings regarding the current state of Arlington’s form of government and electoral system,” according to a press release. “TiGER will regularly report to the Arlington County Board, the Arlington School Board, community and civic groups, and the CivFed membership.”
The subgroup is also tasked with improving representation on the County Board and evaluating district representation rather than county-wide board elections. Already, the discussions have drawn people who want to see changes.
“I think in Arlington we’re so heavily Democratic,” attendee Douglas MacIvor said during the first meeting. “I like the district concept in order to get… different communities represented, but then I would worry that each district would end up becoming more polarized if we don’t have some mechanism to try to push towards more moderation from those candidates.”
Another meeting attendee, Michael Beer, said Arlington is diverse in ethnicity, gender and age but “where we’re falling short substantially is in competitive races.”
Ranked-choice voting, the main reason why TiGER was formed, is one of the biggest changes being discussed. People would rank their top County Board and School Board candidates and in cascading series of rounds the candidate with the fewest number of votes would be eliminated until a winner is selected.
Proponents say it can help more minorities get elected and reduce the impact of “spoiler” candidates who “siphon” votes away from leading ones. Still, some communities have repealed the election format after adopting it.
George Mason University’s Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government, told ARLnow that ranked-choice voting can help more centrist candidates but not always.
“I give the edge to candidates who have broader rather than intensive factional support,” Rozell said about the people who benefit from instant runoffs.
Ranked-choice voting has already been tested in Arlington. Last year, the Arlington County Democratic caucus used it, resulting in Takis Karantonis leapfrogging to victory in the third round to capture the party’s County Board nomination. He went on to win a seat on the board last July.
This change would require the County Board to pass an ordinance but local officials are still waiting on more state guidance. Gretchen Reinemeyer, the county’s general registrar, said guidelines could be discussed in June by the Virginia State Board of Elections.
One TiGER member, Chanda Choun, is stepping aside while he challenges Karantonis in his bid for the County Board.
It’s not just civically-involved residents who have argued for changes to the way Arlington is governed. Longtime former Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette said shortly before his retirement that he thinks Arlington’s form of government should be changed from that of a county, governed by an elected County Board and managed by an unelected County Manager, to that of a city, with an elected mayor and city council.
In 2010, an attempt to change Arlington’s form of government, to one in which County Board members are elected by districts rather than at-large, failed to gather enough valid petition signatures.