How uncertainty sank Richmond’s plan to be first to adopt ranked-choice voting

‘Is this going to be confusing at the ballot box?’

By: - September 13, 2022 12:04 am

City Hall in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for The Virginia Mercury)

For a while, there was hope Virginia’s capital city would be the first to show other local governments it’s safe to make big changes to a fundamental democratic process: How people elect their city councils and county boards.

Richmond City Councilman Andreas Addison was one of a handful of local officials who sponsored a plan to bring ranked-choice voting to city council races starting in 2024, a change proponents believe would reduce extremism and division, encourage candidates to run positive, consensus-building campaigns and make local governments more attuned to the people they serve.

But by the time Richmond officials voted Sept. 6 to reject the idea as too confusing and untested for a city with a fraught racial history, Addison was joining the skeptics in voting it down.

“Is this going to be confusing at the ballot box?” Addison asked rhetorically as he outlined some of the concerns he’d heard. The council voted 6-3 to scrap the proposal, a decision finalized at a meeting Monday night with no discussion.

The hard no in Richmond is a setback for proponents of a state law passed in 2020 that gave cities and counties the option of trying ranked-choice voting in elections for local governing bodies. No local government has adopted the new method — in which voters rank their preferred candidates and votes are reallocated until one candidate wins a majority — but Richmond was considered to be the furthest along in the process.

Ranked-choice proponents say each community has its own issues to work through, and they predict other cities and counties could be more welcoming to the idea in the months ahead. But the initial defeat in heavily Democratic Richmond shows resistance to change could be a formidable obstacle as advocates try to convince local politicians to tinker with voting systems they’ve been winning under.

“I was kind of hoping Richmond would be leading the way,” said Jonathan Davis, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a group dedicated to boosting Black political influence that had endorsed the ranked-choice plan. “But unfortunately that’s not the case, again. We tend to be a little hesitant to do things in Richmond.”

In ranked-choice elections, voters fill out their ballot by ranking all candidates for a particular office, marking their first choice, second choice and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes on the first count, the lowest-performing candidate drops out of contention. That candidate’s first-choice votes are then reallocated to remaining candidates based on who those voters picked as their second choice. The cycle repeats until a candidate reaches a majority.

Until another Virginia locality chooses to adopt the system, ranked-choice voting will only be an option in party-run nominating processes like conventions or firehouse primaries. State election officials already adopted regulations for how government-run ranked-choice elections would work, but they’ve not yet been put to use.

One of the main sticking points in Richmond was that ranked-choice voting could only be implemented for city council races, not in Richmond School Board contests or more high-profile citywide campaigns for Richmond’s strong mayor job.

Making an appearance last week at Richmond’s City Hall, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who sponsored the law making ranked-choice voting an option, said her colleagues in the General Assembly wanted to start small. It didn’t apply to school board races, she said, because some lawmakers raised a concern about school board members being able to vote for election changes without being able to budget money to pay for them.

“I didn’t share it,” Hudson told the Richmond council. “Because I feared we would encounter this very question.”

Changing how Richmond mayors are elected, Hudson said, would require a change to the city charter, a step Richmond’s own representatives would typically have to initiate themselves. Even some ranked-choice supporters acknowledged Richmond voters might be confused by having two different voting systems in place for local offices on the ballot at the same time.

Richmond’s racial divides proved to be another complication.

At the meeting earlier this month, representatives from the Richmond chapter of the NAACP spoke against ranked-choice voting, arguing a state that still doesn’t automatically restore felons’ voting rights upon release should have bigger priorities when it comes to elections and democratic participation.

“I don’t think Richmond is ready for it,” said James “JJ” Minor, president of the Richmond NAACP. “A majority of Americans don’t know anything about it.”

In a lengthy speech, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, one of four Black members on the nine-person council, noted a racial trend in those who spoke for and against ranked-choice voting, saying: “It’s White and Black.”

“I do not support making any changes to that process unless I know absolutely that it’s going to move us closer to equity and inclusion,” Robertson said, insisting a gentrifying Richmond shouldn’t be used as a “test model” for new democracy reforms.

Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents a majority-minority district in South Richmond,  struck a similar tone, suggesting ranked-choice voting was a scheme that could hurt “the poorest of the poor.”

“I think this is wrong,” Trammell said. “I don’t think we’ve got enough information and there is something political about this. And this thing needs to be killed.”

I don't think we've got enough information and there is something political about this. And this thing needs to be killed.

– Councilwoman Reva Trammell

Councilman Michael Jones said he was put off by the way some ranked-choice voting supporters seemed to talk about it as a way to get rid of elected officials they don’t like.

“It’s repulsive,” he said. “If you’re upset with what someone’s doing, run … But don’t say ‘this is a way we can get them out.’”

In addition to its past as the former Confederate capital, Richmond has a more recent history of trying to limit Black political power. In 1970, the city annexed a large portion of neighboring Chesterfield County, a move that reduced the city’s percentage of Black voters by adding thousands of new White voters. The annexation was challenged on grounds that its main purpose was to maintain White control of the city, litigation that ultimately led to federal courts suspending Richmond elections for several years and the creation of a ward-based voting system that gave majority-Black neighborhoods more power to pick their own representatives. 

In the early 2000s when Richmond was considering switching to a strong mayor form of government with the chief executive elected separately by the entire city, there were similar suspicions the change would reduce Black political power. That’s partly what led to a local election rule requiring the mayoral winner to be the top vote-getter in at least five of the city’s nine districts.

Reacting to comments by her colleagues, Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, a main sponsor of the ranked-choice voting plan, acknowledged Richmond’s “exceptionally shameful history when it comes to voting.” But she said she’s convinced making the change would reduce political “gamesmanship.”

“We rank things all the time in our daily lives,” Jordan said. “If we want our elected officials to have the broadest support possible, then the answer to that is to enable the broadest voter base possible to weigh in.”

Davis, the Crusade for Voters president, said he wasn’t sold on ranked-choice voting when he first heard about it. But he’s become convinced it works as advertised after looking into its implementation elsewhere.

“It does not dilute Black voting strength,” Davis said. “It’s just the opposite, if anything.”

Both skeptics and supporters of Richmond’s proposal said things might go differently if the General Assembly were to amend the law so the city could adopt ranked-choice voting for all local elections, not just council races. It’s unclear how a proposal to broaden the law would be received, with Republicans having a stronger hand in the legislature now than they did when the original ranked-choice legislation passed.

Democrat Mary Peltola’s recent defeat of polarizing former Gov. Sarah Palin in a ranked-choice special election in Alaska has brought renewed criticism of the system from some on the right. However, some Virginia Republicans appear to be warming up to the concept after it was used in the GOP’s 2021 convention to nominate now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who led the ticket that broke the party’s decade-long losing streak in statewide elections.

For now, ranked-choice advocates say they’re going to work toward different outcomes in other places that are just starting the discussion Richmond’s having.

“The conversations are happening in Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fredericksburg, Arlington, Alexandria. Norfolk is getting started,” said Liz White, executive director of UpVote Virginia, a new, nonpartisan ranked-choice advocacy group that previously pushed for redistricting reform under the name OneVirginia2021. “I think it’s important to note that every locality really has their own set of quirks and idiosyncrasies and needs.”

Charlottesville City Councilman Juandiego Wade, who’s currently leaning in favor of ranked-choice voting, said his city could potentially take up the issue by the end of the year. He said Charlottesville is so early in the process he’s not sure where his four colleagues stand on it, and hasn’t heard much from the public in either direction.

“It just has to be a really strong voter education process,” Wade said. “Whatever we do.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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