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Arlington election officials to give instant-runoff voting a test run

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The first instant-runoff election conducted by Arlington election officials will occur next month. But it’ll be just a trial run.

County elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer told Electoral Board members on June 30 that she wanted to test out voting equipment for the time, down the road, when instant-runoff (or “ranked-choice”) voting arrives in Arlington.

One such test in the community could be conducted during National Night Out activities on Aug. 3, and it’s possible a mock election also could be held as part of the Arlington County Fair.

“It’ll be a great opportunity” both for the community and elections-office staff, Electoral Board vice chair Kim Phillip said.

For more than a year, Arlington County Board members have had state authorization to permit ranked-choice voting in County Board races, but have yet to pull the trigger – meaning that, at the earliest, a switch from the winner-take-all format would occur in 2022.

All localities across the commonwealth on July 1 gained the same power to switch election formats for their board of supervisors or city council races, although none is likely to do so by November. The Virginia Department of Elections is in the process of setting up guidelines for those who want to make the change.

From a technical standpoint, Arlington has the voting equipment to handle the task – “our system can do it,” Reinemeyer said – but that’s just one piece of a bigger puzzle that includes explaining to the public why a change is being made and how it operates.

“It will be a crucial task . . . to really educate voters,” said Electoral Board chair Matt Weinstein. “We’ll see how it works.”

Going with a mock election will give Arlington officials some almost-real-world experience to provide input to state election officials.
“We can test out different things,” Reinemeyer said. (State officials will allow public comment on their instant-runoff guidelines for 21 days starting on July 19.)

The instant-runoff process already is in use when the Arlington County Democratic Committee selects its nominees for local office through party-run caucuses. Voters in those are able to rank candidates in order of preference; should no candidate receive 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated, and his/her votes are reallocated based on voter preferences.

The process continues in multiple rounds until a candidate hits the 50-percent threshold.

Democrats use the process for all School Board nominating contests and, less frequently, as an alternative to primaries for County Board, constitutional offices and legislative seats.

In theory, ranked-choice voting means the person who is leading after the first round may not be the ultimate winner. That has happened twice in Arlington County Democratic Committee nominating processes, both in 2020, when Takis Karantonis catapulted over first-round winner Barbara Kanninen in a County Board race and David Priddy defeated Steven Krieger in a School Board endorsement race.

The June 29 discussion came as election officials in New York City found themselves besieged after a vast number of “test” ballots in the ranked-choice Democratic mayoral primary were counted as actual ballots, throwing the outcome into doubt and the process into disarray.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Weinstein acknowledged.

Under changes to state law enacted in 2020, the only races eligible to be conducted using ranked-choice voting are for a locality’s governing board.

Statewide, federal, legislative and constitutional-officer races will still be conducted in the format known to most as winner-take-all but, more charmingly for those with an equine bent, known as first-past-the-post. (Political parties can use it to select nominees in any races they want.)

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