Arlington County Board members on Nov. 12 set the stage for action in December switching County Board primary elections from the winner-take-all format, in place locally for 150 years, to a ranked-choice system.
In putting the logistical dominoes in motion toward what is likely to be pro-forma approval next month, County Board members did not, however, extend the change to County Board general elections, which they were entitled to do under state law.
Instead, county leaders say, using the primary will provide a good test laboratory before moving forward. Depending on the experience in next June’s primary, board members would have time to extend the change to that November’s general election.
“If it doesn’t go so great . . . we just don’t adopt it [for the general election],” County Board member Libby Garvey said.
Alternately, “if it all goes smoothly, we’re good to go in November,” Garvey said.
“That’s my hope,” added County Board Chairman Katie Cristol, who has pressed her colleagues to move to ranked-choice voting for general elections but apparently couldn’t win over enough of them to set it up that way immediately.
In the ranked-choice (also known as instant-runoff) process, voters 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.
While the system could accommodate any number of competitors, current Arlington voting equipment only would allow for ranking of up to three candidates, the county’s general registrar told County Board members.
While unlikely to be available for next year’s elections, election officials will look at the cost of purchasing new equipment or upgrading what currently is on hand to remove that limitation, registrar Gretchen Reinemeyer said.
“We’ll be doing a thorough investigation,” she said.
Will moving to ranked-choice voting impact the public release of election results? “I don’t think it’ll take longer,” Reinemeyer said, with the caveat that, as now, it takes several days after an election for the last mail-in ballots to trickle in and provisional ballots to be scrutinized by the Arlington Electoral Board.
Legislation patroned by Del. Patrick Hope three years ago permitted the switch to ranked-choice voting for County Board races (but no other races in Arlington). The legislation did not require a local referendum before making the switch, vesting the power exclusively in the governing body – which cynics might note is something of an inherent conflict of interest. However, there are virtually no voices against the proposal being raised in the community, where there is a vocal group that is pushing for it.
While the Arlington County Board has the power to implement the change, rules governing ranked-choice elections have been delegated by the General Assembly not to localities but to the State Board of Elections. That body has now set the rules for conducting ranked-choice elections, which Arlington officials will have to follow.
Arlington Democrats already use the process for School Board nominating caucuses (as state law does not allow state-run primaries for those posts) and has used caucuses on occasion as an alternative to primaries for County Board, constitutional offices and legislative seats. With the County Board’s action next month, the Arlington County Democratic Committee will obtain what they are likely to see as the best of both worlds: County Board nomination races that include ranked-choice voting but are conducted (and paid for) by the government, rather than staffed and funded by the party as caucuses are.
Ranked-choice voting already has twice impacted Arlington governance, both times in 2020 and both times in the Democratic nominating events.
That year, Takis Karantonis leapfrogged Barbara Kanninen in a Democratic caucus called to select a nominee in the special election necessitated by the death of incumbent County Board member Erik Gutshall. Kanninen, a School Board member, was leading in the first round but Karantonis catapulted past her after securing the second- and third-choice votes of candidates who scored lower and were eliminated.
Also in 2020, David Priddy won a come-from-behind endorsement in the Democrats’ School Board caucus, also benefiting from supporters of candidates who were eliminated in early rounds.
The 2023 County Board Democratic primary could become a free-for-all, as Cristol is not planning to seek re-election and board member Christian Dorsey appears to be mulling over his decision. Garvey predicted “there are going to be numerous candidates” who make the run.
Arlington Republicans have not yet taken a position on the proposed change, spokesman Matthew Hurtt told the Sun Gazette. But John Reeder, a leader of the Arlington Green Party, said his party has supported the concept of ranked-choice voting for decades, and predicted it would have a positive impact in the county once extended to general elections.
“This would allow voters to support Green candidates and feel that they are not wasting their vote when the two major parties also have candidates on the ballot. In Arlington, this would encourage candidates to seek support not only from the two major parties, but also third parties like the Greens,” he told the Sun Gazette.
But the challenge for independents, Greens and even Republicans in Arlington is finding a way to hold Democrats below a majority in the first round of County Board races, in order to allow the process to kick in and play out.
With very rare exceptions (2014 and 2018 the most recent two), Democratic County Board candidates garner far above an absolute majority in general elections. Democrats Takis Karantonis in 2021 and Matt de Ferranti in 2022 each scored more than 60 percent of the vote.
County Board members put the matter, which involves an ordinance change, on their Dec. 17 agenda. Any member of the public interested in speaking on it will be able to.
The five-member Arlington County Board came into being 1932, supplanting a three-member Board of Supervisors that had governed the community since the early 1870s. In each case, elections have been decided on a winner-take-all basis.