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Thursday, September 29, 2022
ArlingtonChallenger raps incumbent for dragging feet on ranked-choice voting

Challenger raps incumbent for dragging feet on ranked-choice voting

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Is Arlington County Board member, and candidate for re-election, Matt de Ferranti just a poseur when it comes to support for moving from a winner-take-all election process to ranked-choice voting?

That was the implication from one of his challengers during the first County Board candidate forum of the year.

At the Sept. 6 Arlington County Civic Federation debate – which was dominated by a focus on Missing Middle housing policies – candidates briefly were asked whether they support ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff. To perhaps nobody’s surprise, all said they did, but then the sparring began.

Independent Adam Theo, who has made election reform a key theme of his campaign, suggested the incumbent was being disingenuous, pointing to a statement just minutes earlier by de Ferranti that he’d like to see the change in voting format implemented first in primaries.

Theo shot back, saying how political parties conducted their nominations was their business, and it would require instant-runoff general elections to “break the hold that political parties have” on the final outcome.
“I want it, now,” Theo said of a change in formats.

The General Assembly several years ago granted the Arlington County Board the power to move from winner-take-all to ranked-choice voting. While a majority of the all-Democratic County Board seem to like the concept, board members have dragged their feet on implementation, citing logistical intricacies and cost concerns. Board members also may be waiting to get a thumbs up from the leadership of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, whose decades-long dominance of the county’s governance could find itself challenged if ranked-choice voting takes hold.

At the debate, de Ferranti said it was “likely but not certain” that the matter will be taken up by County Board members by the start of the year.

Whether that results in a change of voting format next year is anyone’s guess. Voters have no direct say in the matter; the General Assembly legislation did not require, or even allow for, a community referendum before implementing any changes.

Ranked-choice voting essentially means what it says: Voters can (but are not required to) rank candidates for a specific office in order of preference. If no candidate wins 50 percent plus one in the election, the lowest-vote-getting contender is eliminated and his/her votes are reallocated as directed by the voter. The process repeats for as many times as necessary until one candidate reaches a majority of votes cast.

Supporters of the concept say it eliminates the likelihood that a fringe contender could slip into office by winning a relatively small amount of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Supporters also contend that it would encourage candidates to run more positive campaigns, since they are attempting to get the most votes possible, even if they are the second, third or fourth choices of some voters.

The instant-runoff method is not new to Arlington, as the Arlington County Democratic Committee has used it in County Board and School Board nominating caucuses in recent years. (Unless and until County Board members OK implementation during state-run primaries, that format remains a winner-take-all affair.) Republicans at the state level have begun using the process at their nominating conventions, as well.

Twice over the past two years, a candidate who was trailing initially in a Democratic caucus – one for County Board, the other for School Board – catapulted to victory by garnering more second- and third-choice votes than the candidate who held the initial lead.

At the Civic Federation forum, the third candidate on the Nov. 8 County Board ballot, independent Audrey Clement, said ranked-choice voting was “a necessary tool” to break the Democratic monopoly in Arlington, but would only work in a community “where media are unbiased and endorse candidates on their merit.”

While it has had an impact in Democratic-run nominating contests, whether a format change would impact general elections in Arlington seems unlikely. Democratic nominees generally can count on more than 60 percent of the vote from the Arlington electorate, rendering the format change moot.

Those who enjoy spinning political what-ifs have postulated that, if ranked-choice voting was in place for 2022 and in the unlikely event that de Ferranti was held under 50 percent of the vote and was followed by Clement and then Theo, voters supporting Theo (who would be eliminated as the low-vote-getter in this scenario) would gravitate to de Ferranti because they are closer in position on zoning issues than are Theo and Clement.

Then again, Theo’s votes could end up with Clement in this scenario, if those voters were against the Democratic monopoly in local government.

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