Technical, legal and financial complexities likely will mean any start to “instant-runoff” County Board voting in Arlington will be pushed back to 2022 at the soonest.
“It’s not practical for this year. The earliest this could possibly be used is next year,” said Arlington Electoral Board secretary Scott McGeary, summing things up during a Feb. 6 Electoral Board meeting.
That’s a view generally shared by elections staff.
“There’s a lot of questions . . . that we don’t have the answers to,” said Gretchen Reinemeyer, who heads the county’s election office, in a briefing of Electoral Board members.
Under General Assembly legislation passed in 2020, Arlington now has the power to implement instant-runoff (alternately known as “ranked-choice” voting) for County Board races at either or both the primary and general-election levels. It would not impact any other elections in Arlington.
While advocates for the change feel confident County Board members will implement it, those board members will likely have to weigh multiple factors in deciding when, or even if, to move ahead.
“This is a County Board decision. We’re here to assist them,” Reinemeyer said. “The County Board is the ultimate decision-making authority. I would hope we get some guidance from them in coming months.”
The question becomes, which comes first: A County Board decision on moving forward, or election officials coming up with answers to more technical questions that involve coordination with the State Board of Elections and voter-technology vendors.
“We have a chicken-or-the-egg problem,” said Electoral Board chairman Matthew Weinstein. “That’s the nature of the problem. Ultimately, the County Board has to give the thumbs up.”
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 (as state law does not allow state-run primaries for those posts) and, less frequently, as an alternative to primaries for County Board, constitutional offices and legislative seats.
Making a change to ranked-choice voting would not limit the number of people whose names could appear on the ballot. But a still-unanswered question is how many of those contenders voters would be able to rank.
Currently, technology from the county’s voting-software vendor (Unisyn Voting Solutions) permits ranking up to three candidates. While the firm is working on increasing that number, “the [state] certification process can be lengthy,” said McDermot Coutts, the software-development director at Unisyn.
Settling on the final number of candidates who could be ranked by a voter is not a merely esoteric decision. Election officials acknowledge that the number of candidates who could be ranked might have an impact on which candidate or candidates emerge as winners.
County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti agreed that there are a number of implementation questions that need to be noodled through in coming months.
“The County Board’s budget guidance for the coming year includes a request that the county manager give us options with respect to ranked-choice voting,” he told the Sun Gazette. “I am looking forward to receiving his proposal and evaluating the costs and benefits in the context of a very difficult budget year. I will also want to learn more from our Electoral Board and registrar regarding how this would be implemented.”
If things moves forward, Arlington could serve the guinea pig for instant-runoff elections in Virginia. While that would bring implementation headaches for county officials, it also serves up opportunities to lead the way forward into uncharted territory.
“What we have in Virginia now is a blank slate, which is a good thing, in my view,” Reinemeyer said.
The Feb. 6 update “was well-done and well-researched,” said Michael Cantwell, a local civic activist and member of FairVote Virginia.
Coutts said public-education efforts were key to making the public aware of any changes that might be adopted.
“Having people understand why the person who had the most votes in the first round lost is difficult,” he said.
(But it’s already happened, twice, in Arlington County Democratic Committee caucuses, both times in 2020. Takis Karantonis in a County Board race and David Priddy in a School Board race each catapulted past candidates who scored higher in the first round, ultimately winning the Democratic endorsement.)
The Electoral Board meeting spent nearly an hour on the topic. The upshot? “Stay tuned,” Weinstein said.