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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
ArlingtonTechnology to put limits on 'ranked-choice' voting

Technology to put limits on ‘ranked-choice’ voting

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Say Arlington leaders decide to move to a ranked-choice voting method for County Board races. And say that six people decide to make a run for office.

Voters likely will only have the opportunity to “rank” their top three choices, based on current voting equipment used in the county.

“That’s the way their system was programmed,” said Gretchen Reinemeyer, the county’s elections chief, in an Oct. 5 work session with County Board members.

Improvements to the existing system might be coming down the road, but “we cannot predict” when they might be available or win approval at the state level, Reinemeyer told County Board members.

The Oct. 5 meeting was the first stab County Board members have taken in starting the ball rolling on consideration of a change from the current winner-take-all election structure that has governed board elections since 1932.

While the General Assembly in 2020 passed legislation giving Arlington the power to make the switch (though only for County Board races), board members opted against implementing it for the 2020 or 2021 elections. That has drawn criticism that board members are dragging their feet – any change in the voting process could potentially threaten the Democratic elected-office monopoly – but County Board members said they were unable to act because the Virginia Department of Elections has not provided parameters for conducting ranked-choice elections.

“There is no meaningful way we could have acted” earlier, County Board member Katie Cristol said.

(That may be a tad disingenuous; Arlington could have gone forward with the change and let state election officials catch up, but “we want to make sure we’re . . . not moving ahead of them,” Reinemeyer suggested.)

The intricacies can be complicated, but the basics of ranked-choice voting are not: Voters get their ballot and are allowed to rank candidates for an office (up to the number permitted) in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of votes the first time out, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated and his/her votes are reallocated as directed by voters. The process continues until one candidate emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Supporters of the process say it ensures winning candidates have a broad base of support, eliminating the likelihood of fringe candidates in a large field of contenders sneaking into office with a fraction of the total vote.

Ranked-choice voting is not an enigma to many Arlington voters. The Arlington County Democratic Committee uses it for many of its nominating contests, and the Republican Party of Virginia this year used it to select nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Two Arlington elected officials – County Board member Takis Karantonis and School Board member David Priddy – owe their seats to the ranked-choice method. Both were trailing other candidates in Democratic nominating contests last year, but catapulted over them in later rounds to emerge victorious.

At the Oct. 5 meeting, County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti cautioned his colleagues to “not get too worried about the details,” but as those who watch work sessions know too well, that didn’t stop several of them from digging deep into the weeds.

Questioned whether it would be fair to candidates to permit voters to rank only a handful of them if the field was large, Reinemeyer said technological challenges have led nearly all governments that use ranked-choice to impose some kind of maximum.

“Every jurisdiction except Australia limits the choices you can make – every machine has an upper limit,” she said.

The 2020 legislation gives the County Board, not voters, the power to make the switch from winner-take-all to ranked-choice voting. A decision is possible early next spring.

“We’ll be happy to implement whatever you decide to do – or not do,” Arlington Electoral Board chairman Matt Weinstein told County Board members.

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