Virginia Republicans are using ranked-choice voting again. Democrats still aren’t.

Parties take different approaches in scramble to pick nominees to succeed McEachin

By: - December 14, 2022 6:13 pm

“I Voted” stickers are displayed at a Richmond polling place during the 2022 midterm elections. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

As a Virginia Democratic committee spent over an hour Monday night discussing the unusual logistics of how to hold a congressional firehouse primary that has to be wrapped up before Christmas, the topic of ranked-choice voting never came up.

On Wednesday, the Republican Party of Virginia announced it will use ranked-choice voting to pick its nominee at its own party-run primary, saying the ranking method will help elevate “the candidate with the broadest base of support.”

No matter who the candidates are, Democrats are heavily favored to keep the Richmond-based 4th Congressional District seat following the death of former Rep. Donald McEachin last month. 

But the rules the two parties picked for their snap nominating contests are the latest sign that Virginia Republicans seem more eager than Democrats to adopt ranked-choice voting in party-run nomination contests.

The Democrats’ choice to stick to traditional voting rules could be significant in what could be a five-way race between Sens. Jennifer McClellan and Joe Morrissey, Del. Lamont Bagby, former delegate Joe Preston and activist Tavorise Marks. Ranked-choice voting proponents argue the method limits the reach of polarizing but sneakily popular candidates like Morrissey, whose ability to withstand a litany of controversies seems to endear him to his working-class base but has left many Democrats reluctant to support him for any public office.

Under ranked-choice voting, Bagby and McClellan supporters would be able to form an anti-Morrissey alliance of sorts by ranking their ballots accordingly and combining their votes behind whichever of the two emerges as the strongest candidate. 

Bagby, who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, has been endorsed by several top Henrico County officials and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. McClellan, a longtime state lawmaker who raised her profile last year by running for governor, got a major endorsement Wednesday from U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a Richmonder who previously served as the city’s mayor.

Under standard plurality voting, where the candidate with the most votes wins, McClellan and Bagby could end up splitting the votes of more mainstream Democrats. And that leaves more of an opening for Morrissey — a skilled retail politician known for tireless door-knocking and defying expectations — to win simply by getting more of his supporters to the polls next Tuesday, without necessarily winning a majority of the votes cast.

Elizabeth Melson, the president of ranked-choice voting advocacy group FairVote Virginia, said a ranking system “can prevent an extreme or fringe candidate from winning with a narrow plurality.”

“It makes sense for both major parties to use this method in nominating conventions or firehouse primaries, especially when filling the seat of a longtime, respected incumbent,” Melson said. “We the people should want to get the candidate with the broadest possible support.”

Democratic officials didn’t give a direct response when asked why ranked-choice voting wasn’t discussed as an option at the public planning meeting for the firehouse primary.

“Although the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committee is at liberty to determine its own method of nomination, no member of the committee suggested ranked-choice voting, and therefore the committee did not discuss it,” said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Liam Watson.

Under current Virginia law, ranked-choice voting in government-run elections is only allowed in local contests. Only a few cities and counties have considered adopting it, and Arlington County is expected to use it in its government-run primaries for local board seats next year.

The rules are different for nomination processes run by political parties, which have more leeway to set their own rules. Republicans used a version of ranked-choice voting at a convention last year to nominate Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares, a ticket that broke a lengthy GOP losing streak in statewide elections. That process effectively sidelined hard-right Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a 2021 gubernatorial contender who some Republicans feared might doom the party to defeat by winning a crowded primary under traditional voting rules.

Republicans also used ranked-choice voting earlier this year in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District to nominate Hung Cao, who lost to Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in a closer-than-expected race.

Virginia Democrats have favored government-run primaries to select their nominees, a method many see as smoother and more democratic because the easier format encourages more people to participate.

Skeptics of ranked-choice voting have raised concerns it might cause confusion for voters unfamiliar with how it works, and voter education would have been an even heavier lift given the extremely abbreviated timeline for choosing nominees for McEachin’s former congressional seat.

At the publicly streamed 4th District Congressional Committee meeting earlier this week, Democratic activists largely discussed the pros and cons of voting on Tuesday or Saturday and how to get the word out that the firehouse primary is happening to get as many people as possible to participate.

Due to the requirements of state law, parties have to pick their nominees for the seat by Dec. 23, 60 days before the Feb. 21 election date set by Youngkin.

“That timeline is early and not something that we can lobby against or change or put a press release out and hope for better. That is set in stone,” Alexsis Rodgers, the chairwoman of the Democratic committee for the district, said at the meeting. “Because of that timeline, we actually do not have the option to depend on our usual systems of government to administer this election.”

With the two parties left to run the primaries on their own, Democrats in the district can vote at one of eight polling places spread throughout the district from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Tuesday. The Republican firehouse primary (technically called a party canvass) will be held Saturday at a single voting location in Colonial Heights from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Morrissey has been sharply critical of the decision to hold the Democratic primary on Tuesday as opposed to Saturday, saying in a press release the move would “disenfranchise every single African-American working mother who can’t afford to pay $25 for a babysitter.”

At the Democrats’ planning meeting, the Tuesday primary was presented as a way to give candidates a few more days to campaign while setting the vote on the weekday long associated with elections.

Republicans attempted to portray their Saturday process as the more voter-friendly of the two, but the GOP faces steep odds in the district regardless of what happens in the primaries.

Leon Benjamin, a Republican pastor who lost a lopsided race against McEachin last month, is expected to run again. Dale Sturdifen, a former state trooper, has also indicated he intends to compete for the Republican nomination.

McEachin won nearly 65% of the vote in the district last month, defeating Benjamin by more than 73,500 votes.


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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.