All four of those on the Nov. 2 Arlington County Board ballot have professed their fealty to holding future County Board elections via a ranked-choice method, but challengers say the incumbent board members are slow-walking the process out of fear it could dilute Democrats’ current monopoly on county power.
The County Board has “taken very little action” despite having had the power to move to ranked-choice elections since 2020, said Mike Cantwell, a voting activist and one of three independents challenging Democratic incumbent Takis Karantonis.
The topic came up at the Sept. 8 candidate forum sponsored by the Arlington Committee of 100. While there were different gradations of opinion, each candidate professed broad support for a change away from the winner-take-all method of electing County Board candidates that has been in place since 1932.
“All of us here are fans,” said Adam Theo, another Karantonis challenger.
But, Theo argued, Karantonis “has not done anything to move it along” and “the County Board is slow-walking and taking their sweet time.”
Those with a Machiavellian bent believe the reason for the delay is simple: For the foreseeable future, Democrats are likely to win any County Board race in a winner-take-all fashion, but move the format to ranked-choice voting, and things may get more . . . interesting.
Switching to the ranked-choice format would “open a lot of eyes” to how much support independent candidates might be able to achieve in Arlington, said Audrey Clement, the third challenger to Karantonis.
The 2021 County Board election may prove a test of whether Clement is right. With three independents facing off against Democrat Karantonis, it is possible – albeit unlikely – that the incumbent could be held to less than 50 percent of the vote. If so, those opponents would score a moral victory, but since the election will be held under the winner-take-all format, Karantonis is all but assured a new term even if less than a majority of voters support him.
(While she backs ranked-choice voting, “what we really need here is a district[-based] form of government,” Clement said. County leaders have shown no interest in going down that route, preferring an at-large County Board and School Board.)
Legislation patroned by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) in 2020 gave Arlington County Board members the power to change the form of election for the board to ranked-choice as early as the November 2020 election. A separate piece of legislation adopted that year extended the authority to countywide starting with the November 2021 election.
Both measures allow for ranked-choice voting in general elections, special elections and primaries, but only for governing bodies (boards of supervisors or city councils). It does not apply to presidential, congressional, governor/lieutenant governor/attorney general, School Board or constitutional-officer races.
In 2020, County Board members decided against taking up consideration of the matter, citing the COVID crisis. This year, board members have been waiting for the Virginia Department of Elections to develop guidelines for conducting ranked-choice elections. Board members plan to hold a work session with county election staff in early October, which potentially could pave the way for implementation of the change in 2022.
“You will see – very, very soon – lining this up for action,” said Karantonis, who pushed back against challengers who said Democrats were talking the talk but not walking the walk on the issue.
The incumbent said he voted to fund acquisition of the technology necessary to conduct ranked-choice voting in the county.
“I put money where my mouth is,” he said. (Taxpayer money, of course, but money nonetheless.)
How does ranked-choice voting work? As the name suggests, voters can (but are not obligated to) rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round, the lowest-scoring challenger is eliminated and his/her votes are reallocated as directed by his/her voters. The process repeats for as many cycles as necessary to achieve a winner.
Arlington election officials in early August did a test run, asking volunteers to take part in a mock election using the format – rather than people, the election asked those participating to select their favorite Arlington farmers’ market. The process took nine rounds but went smoothly in getting to a winner, said Gretchen Reinemeyer, the county’s elections chief.
In 2020, Karantonis became the first County Board member in Arlington history to actually win office due to a ranked-choice election. In the Democratic nominating caucus leading up to a special election called to fill the seat of the late Erik Gutshall, Karantonis ran second behind School Board member Barbara Kanninen in the first round. But Kanninen failed to reach 50 percent of the vote, and in subsequent rounds, Karantonis leapfrogged her to win the party’s endorsement. In July 2020, he won the special election in a three-way race conducted under the winner-take-all format.
The Karantonis victory in the 2020 endorsement process seemed to ratify one reason supporters use to promote the ranked-choice concept. They say that it will promote candidates who appeal to a broad swath of voters. Kanninen, perhaps because she was the only candidate on the ballot in elected office, hit a ceiling of support and could not fend off Karantonis as he picked up votes from those who had initially supported candidates who had been eliminated from contention.
A similar occurrence during the 2020 Democratic School Board caucus, where a candidate who was in the lead for one of two seats on the first round ended up being overtaken by another candidate in subsequent rounds.