Arlington County held a test run on a new system of ranked choice voting for the two open County Board seats in the Democratic primary June 20. This system was not used in the other races on the ballot for sheriff, Commonwealth Attorney, state senate or house of delegates.
Ranked choice voting is a method in which voters rank candidates in order of preference and as of April 2023, 63 jurisdictions around the United States have ranked choice voting in place. This includes two states, three counties and 58 cities. In 2020 the Virginia General Assembly passed HB1103 giving cities and counties the option to adopt ranked choice voting for local governing bodies. Arlington is the first jurisdiction in Virginia to use ranked choice voting. In this election voters were allowed to rank three of the six candidates for the two open County Board seats.
Systems in different localities around the United States can differ based on their voting equipment and state laws. Section 24.2-673.1 of the Code of Virginia defines ranked choice voting and sets out the process for adoption by a majority of the board of supervisors or city council that the office being elected serves.
Explanatory materials accompanying the law declare: “The capacity of your vendor is going to determine how many rankings you will ultimately be able to administer in the RCV election…. Note that the ranking limit does not impact the number of candidates allowed on the ballot. It only impacts how many of those candidates on the ballot a voter can rank.” Thus in the case of Arlington’s race for county board seats, the election accommodated counting of only three candidates but there were six on the ballot. This is called a single transferable vote.
The way it works is when a candidate receives the least number of votes, he/she drops out of the next round of tabulation and that candidate’s second and third place choices are distributed to those candidates. This process continues with the next candidate with the lowest number of votes dropping out with their second and third place votes distributed and on it goes until a candidate has reached the required 33.33 percent of the total votes needed to win the seat.
On Tuesday evening, Election Day June 20, the tally of the first round of votes was released with Susan Cunningham at 25 percent with 6,952 votes and Natalie Roy at 24 percent with 6,708 votes with Maureen Coffey and Julius Spain not far behind. Some hypothesized this was a voter statement on the County’s missing middle housing zoning proposal (anti-density) which Cunningham and Roy had opposed and the other four candidates had supported.
But the candidates that had received the most votes but were not at the magic 33.33 percent needed to win are not necessarily guaranteed victory when the musical chairs has ended.
And on it went until the preliminary results were announced at a small public gathering late Friday afternoon with the preliminary results for Maureen Coffey at 40 percent on the fourth round and Susan Cunningham at 60 percent on the sixth round. The final results were confirmed on Saturday after checking the 130 provisional ballots.
Cunningham says, “The vote reflects the community pretty well. It’s partially a restructuring of the demographic makeup.” She says those that vote in the primary tend to be older people and whiter.
Cunningham points out that with Maureen Coffey, a supporter of the missing middle proposal, there is a good balance. “It could make for a better community.”
Julius (J.D.) Spain, who received 20 percent (5,363 votes) in the first round and who supported the missing middle housing proposal, says he thinks there wasn’t enough education about ranked choice voting and that a system should have been put in place to support the new system by allowing ranking of all six candidates. “There was a staff recommendation to put $50,000 in the County budget for education on the new system but it didn’t make it into the budget. You get a lot of different stories about why. I’ve heard replacement would cost over $2 million but you need to ask the Election officials.”
Tania Griffin, communications and outreach coordinator for Arlington’s Office of Voter Registration & Elections says she doesn’t know why there was no funding in the budget for educating the public on ranked choice voting but she says the State had a public relations firm which was used for this purpose so she thinks they decided that was enough. Griffin says the current Arlington County voting equipment would need to be changed in order to accommodate more than three candidates under ranked choice voting. She indicates she doesn’t know how much this would cost.
Griffin says the election went really well. “We worked hard to be sure it worked correctly. It was pretty simple.” She adds the Election Board held a lot of events with the League of Women Voters, Civic Associations and created tool kits on the website. “We were everywhere.”
Natalie Roy says ranked choice voting can work really well. “I know from living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But I think if Arlington chooses to move ahead they really need to have the equipment to rank the entire slate.” In this case it would have been all six candidates instead of the current limitation of three.
She continues, “I don’t have sour grapes but I do think the county didn’t do a good job of dispersing information around the county. They did the training for an inside group. They talked to each other.” She adds, “there was a lot of confusion. There were a lot of people who couldn’t understand what happened. I had someone who came up to me today who said, ‘you won didn’t you?’”
One of the major reasons Arlington decided to try ranked choice voting is the idea that it gives voters more opportunity to have an input in the election. If their first choice doesn’t win, their second or third choice could play a part in the eventual winner. Voter reaction has been mixed. At Williamsburg Middle School the voters received a short tutorial on how to vote using the RCV method. “They seemed to understand what to do.”
But at the other end of the room at the exit by the machine processing the votes, the volunteer observed “a lot of ballots were turned back due to improper marking.” The good news is that the machine spit them out, and it was easy to fill out a new ballot the correct way. A man taking a poll of voters leaving the Madison Community Center observed that voters indicated they didn’t have any difficulty filling out the ballot but they didn’t really understand why there was a new system or how the ballots would be counted.
But Spain says he does believe that ranked choice voting did cause candidates to be more careful on how they campaigned which was one of the key arguments for trying out the new system. You knew that a voter who put someone else first could list you as number two or three so it encouraged not alienating those potential voters. Cunningham agrees it made for more civilized campaigning.
Roy agrees, “It made campaigning more civilized on the surface although she said Sen. Barbara Favola campaigned against her. And she said people made up things about her son. “A lie can work.”
The County is conducting a poll which will help determine whether to use ranked choice voting in the fall election.
You can access this poll at the website. According to David Barrera, Acting Communications and Policy Manager for the Arlington County Board, the Board plans to take up this issue at its July 15 regular board meeting. The decision to proceed will take a vote by the Board.