The Bulletin

Ranked-choice voting may be coming to local elections in Virginia. Here’s how it works.

By: - February 18, 2020 2:58 pm

A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

If the Iowa caucuses taught us anything, said Del. Sally Hudson, it’s that sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure out which candidates have majority support from the people electing them.

Hudson, D-Charlottesville, wants to bring some clarity on that front by giving local governments the option of having ranked-choice voting in elections for seats on city councils and county boards of supervisors.

Legislation she sponsored to create a ranked-choice voting pilot program is advancing through the General Assembly, winning approval Tuesday in a Senate committee after passing the House of Delegates earlier this month.

Under ranked-choice systems already used in several cities and the state of Maine, voters are allowed to rank their preferred candidates by first choice, second choice, and so on.

In elections for a single seat, if a candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is disqualified, and their supporters’ second-choice picks are added to the remaining candidates’ tallies. The process continues until a candidate wins a majority.

The process can also be used in elections where there can be more than one winner, such as races for multiple at-large council seats.

Though some voters might find it more complicated or confusing, supporters of ranked-choice voting say it gives more weight to each individual ballot, ensures winners have support from a majority of the people they’ll represent and boosts civility by incentivizing candidates to appeal to a broader set of voters instead of slinging mud at opponents.

“It’s a benefit to communities like mine in Charlottesville that tend to have very low-turnout primaries in the summer and then local elections in the fall that often have multiple candidates running for a handful of open seats,” Hudson said in a Senate committee hearing Tuesday. “You end up with really split elections and less certainty about which candidate has majority support from the community.”

Hudson’s bill passed the House on a 57-42 vote. On Tuesday, it won approval in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee for a look at its fiscal impact.

State officials have estimated the program could cost the Virginia Department of Elections $1.3 million for the additional staff and resources needed to implement a new system of voting. But those costs would vary depending on how many localities want to pursue ranked-choice voting, and Hudson’s bill stipulates that only those localities would pay for it. No locality would be forced to change its local election system under the bill.

The bill would not take effect until July 1, 2021. The legislation also includes a 2031 expiration date, meaning the General Assembly would have to revisit the program in the future to see how it’s working and decide whether to keep it.

Hudson’s bill would also leave it to the State Board of Elections to craft more detailed regulations for how ranked-choice votes would be counted and how the ballots would be designed.

“The bill was intended to be flexible so that the folks most in the know could ensure the details,” Hudson said.

No one spoke against the proposal at Tuesday’s hearing, but several people said they felt it was an idea worth exploring.

“It sounds like the type of thing we should be trying out in Virginia,” said Bill Love, a member of the Albemarle County Electoral Board. “She’s obviously going about this in a very conservative way.”

Before becoming law, the bill still needs to pass the state Senate and be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

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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.