Arlington’s elected leaders proclaim their support for moving from winner-take-all County Board elections to the ranked-choice (also known as instant-runoff) model. But some in the community have a sneaking suspicion that their words may not be matched by their deeds.
“Why are we not leading Virginia?” ranked-choice supporter Leo Matkovsky asked at the July 17 County Board meeting, noting it had been a full year since Arlington gained the power to implement instant-runoff elections for County Board, but seemed to have made no progress.
General Assembly members in 2020 gave Arlington, and only Arlington, the ability to make the switch that year, with the rest of the commonwealth gaining a similar opportunity this year. But Arlington County Board members opted not to get too far out in front of the curve.
“The mechanics are pretty complicated,” said board member Katie Cristol.
Well, yes and no.
It is true that the Virginia Department of Elections has not yet finalized regulations related to the use of instant-runoff elections for local governing bodies, making 2022 the earliest they could be implemented in most localities. But at the same time, it appears feasible that, if Arlington officials decided in 2020 to move forward, they could have served as a guinea pig for the process.
Given the other issues at the forefront of public attention last year, then-County Board Chairman Libby Garvey took consideration of the election-format change off the table.
Her successor in 2021, Matt de Ferranti, also does not appear to see it as a pressing matter. The board conceivably could have authorized instant-runoff for the 2021 County Board election at its July meeting, but there were other more pressing matters to attend to, he said.
“I didn’t feel this moment . . . was the time to bring up this topic,” de Ferranti said.
(The five County Board members, Democrats all, appear to be split on the benefits to their party, which dominates local politics, in moving forward on the change. Whether it’s 3-2 in favor of going ahead or 3-2 in support of slowing things down depends on whom you talk to.)
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 surpasses the 50-percent threshold.
Democrats’ use of the process has twice had real-world implications, as two candidates in 2020 (Takis Karantonis for County Board and David Priddy for School Board) leapfrogged over other contenders who had led on the first round of caucus voting.
Karantonis, who in 2020 won a special election and whose seat is on the ballot in November, is facing three independent challengers in Audrey Clement, Michael Cantwell and Adam Theo. In a theoretically possible instant-runoff scenario (had one been put in place), those three challengers could keep Karantonis from attaining the magic 50-percent-plus-one mark, with the non-Karantonis votes accumulating to one of the independents in subsequent rounds, thus ousting him from office. Given the overall Democratic inclinations of the county electorate, however, that seems a fanciful proposition.
Cristol, who brings an unusually exuberant passion for ranked-choice voting to the dais, said she hoped it would be taken up after County Board members return from their summer siestas.
“I’m really looking forward to greater engagement in the fall,” she said, asking supporters of the idea not to worry.
“We are not losing our head start,” Cristol said. “We are probably ahead of where other communities are.”