After being first in Virginia to use it, Arlington hits brakes on ranked-choice voting

By: - July 18, 2023 12:09 am

(Graham Moomaw/The Virginia Mercury)

When Arlingtonians went to the polls last month to vote in a Democratic primary election for two open seats on the County Board, many were met with a question that had never been asked before during a government-run election in Virginia: “Are you familiar with ranked-choice voting?”

Arlington County’s closely watched foray into a new type of voting has drawn generally positive reviews, but the verdict from officials deciding whether the county should use it again has been mixed. On Saturday, the County Board opted not to implement ranked-choice voting in its general elections for board seats in November, pointing to confusion about the process and concerns about whether outreach efforts were translating to diverse support for the new system. However, several board members said they still want to pursue ranked-choice voting in future elections.

“While I know we’ve heard some people ask that we commit to it now and for every election thereafter, I don’t think that’s the proper thing to do at this point,” said Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

During the June 20 primary, many Arlington voters interviewed by the Virginia Mercury welcomed the new process. 

Consuelo Bangs of Glen Carlyn said she found it “easy” to rank candidates based on whom she liked best as opposed to casting a ballot only for a clear favorite. 

“Numbers don’t always reflect what’s in the mind of voters,” she said.

Andrea Hansen said she was familiar with how ranked choice voting works in other places like Alaska, which has embraced the voting method in higher-profile congressional elections, and thinks it’s a good system.

“It gives the impression of more of an equal playing field and it encourages people to read up more on the candidates,” said Hansen, who added she wished there had been more resources available to learn about her options on the ballot.

Under Virginia law, ranked choice voting — which allows voters to rank the candidates they like best and requires election officials to reallocate votes across multiple rounds of counting ballots — is currently only authorized in local elections where the local government has chosen to adopt it. 

Arlington was the first to do so, and its experiment in democratic reform was being scrutinized as an indicator of how ranked choice voting would work in the real world. Several other cities and counties are considering following Arlington’s lead, and the response to local-level pilot programs could be a factor in lawmakers’ future debates about whether ranked choice voting should be expanded to more types of elections.

Proponents of ranked choice voting believe it can reduce political polarization by encouraging candidates to run more civil campaigns with the broadest appeal possible, instead of trying to fire up a narrow slice of the electorate. Supporters also say it empowers voters to a greater degree than traditional voting methods by making each ballot affect the outcome even if a voter’s first choice doesn’t win.

Skeptics worry it’s too complicated for many voters to grasp and erodes trust by adding new layers of complexity to the vote-counting process.

From an election administration standpoint, Arlington’s experiment with ranked-choice voting is widely seen as a success, with no major glitches or technological problems.

“It went as well as we could have expected it to go,” Arlington Registrar Gretchen Reinemeyer said in an interview.

A post-primary survey gauging voter sentiment about the ranked-choice method showed that 57% of respondents reported “exceptional” or “positive” experiences, with 29% describing their experience as “negative” and 13% reporting “fair.”

Arlington voters reporting mostly smooth ranked-choice voting process Tuesday

Advocates for ranked-choice voting have touted the Arlington primary outcome as an example of the system working as advertised. An estimated 84% of people who cast a ballot in the primary voted for at least one of the two winning candidates, Maureen Coffey and Susan Cunningham, according to local election officials. With the so-called “missing middle” of housing policy being a top local issue, observers say the primary results reflect the range of public opinion on the topic as opposed to one side winning total victory.

“You ended up with voters showing up in about a 50-50 split on that issue,” said Liz White, executive director of ranked-choice voting advocacy group UpVote Virginia. “And you got one candidate from each camp.”

Concerns raised during Saturday’s board meeting primarily centered on confusion about the vote tabulation process and fears the new process didn’t click with minority groups as well as it did with white voters.

“This was a very successful experiment,” said Board Member Takis P. Karantonis. “But a lot of intense outreach needs to happen. And we collectively have to think about how to organize that in the future.”

This was a very successful experiment. But a lot of intense outreach needs to happen. And we collectively have to think about how to organize that in the future.

– Arlington County Board Member Takis P. Karantonis

State law specifies that local ranked choice voting elections must use the “single transferable vote” method of tabulating results in contests with multiple winners for multiple seats. In that process, first-choice votes cast for the candidate who receives the lowest support in the first round of tabulation are reallocated based on those voters’ second choices. The counting continues until candidates hit the level of support needed to win. Having a primary for two seats complicated Arlington’s counting process because it meant that if a group of voters pushed one candidate over the winning threshold early, fractional votes could be redistributed based on those voters’ second and third choices.

Even some board members indicated they weren’t fully clear on the intricacies of how votes were counted.

“There are a whole lot of people where maybe their second votes never count,” said Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey. “Maybe I don’t completely understand it … But I do want to know how my vote counts.”

Though UpVote Virginia and others had encouraged Arlington to continue ranked choice voting, the advocacy group portrayed Saturday’s board decision as more of a temporary pause than a reversal.

“The last year has been incredibly positive for Ranked Choice Voting in Virginia, and Arlingtonians should be proud to be the first locality to move forward with an RCV election that was not only administered without a hitch, but popular with voters as well,” White said in a statement released Saturday afternoon. “Arlington’s experiment with RCV was a success every step of the way.” 

Editor-in-chief Sarah Vogelsong contributed to this report.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.