[Updated to include comments made Dec. 11 by Arlington County Board members.]
With the 2021 election season a blissfully fading memory, it’s time to turn to 2022 – and the possibility that ranked-choice voting will be implemented for Arlington County Board races.
It appears the County Board is not going to be rushed into taking any action.
Following an early-October work session on the subject between Arlington County Board members and election-office staff, there appears to have been a period of quiet reflection among board members.
It was appreciated by election officials – they did have to contend with running an election, after all – but with that out of the way, “we do anticipate more news from them, eventually” on ranked-choice voting, county elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer told Electoral Board members on Nov. 30.
The work session was beneficial, Electoral Board chair Matt Weinstein said. “I think the County Board learned a lot about the process,” he said.
Learned? Yes. And had some concerns? Also yes.
“There were issues raised during that session regarding implementation that gave me pause,” County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti said on Dec. 11. “I want to make sure we think all of those through.”
His remarks came after Michael Cantwell – a civic-association president, vice president of a state election-advocacy group and unsuccessful County Board candidate this year – urged board members to take a number of steps, including adding two seats to the five-member County Board; making three of those seats district-based rather than at-large; and holding local elections only in odd-numbered years to remove an institutional advantage of the county’s Democrats.
“Do you have the courage?” Cantwell asked.
Time will supply an answer to that question, but board member Christian Dorsey said the county government should wait until the Arlington County Civic Federation completes its work studying the issue of local governance and delivers its final report.
“I’d rather have this not be something that is board-led, but community-driven,” Dorsey said.
As to expanding the number of County Board members and changing the current every-year rhythm of local elections, that likely would require either General Assembly intervention, a county referendum or both, making it unlikely to be something to be accomplished quickly.
As for ranked-choice voting? Legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2020 gave Arlington board members the power to switch County Board elections from winner-take-all, which they have been since the start of that body in the 1930s, to ranked-choice, where voters can (but are not obligated to) list candidates in order of preference.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated and his or her votes reallocated as directed by his/her voters. The process continues as many rounds as necessary until one candidate emerges with a majority.
Whether the format will have any noticeable impact on general-election results is debatable. In November, Democrat Takis Karantonis won 60 percent of the vote against a trio of independents, suggesting that no nominee of Arlington’s dominant political party need worry about failing to gain a majority.
Ranked-choice voting is not an enigma to many Arlington voters. The Arlington County Democratic Committee uses it for many of its nominating contests (although not in state-run primaries), and the Republican Party of Virginia this year used it to select nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Two Arlington elected officials – Karantonis himself 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.
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.
The 2020 legislation permitting Arlington to change the voting method does not require approval in a referendum. “It’s in the board’s hands,” said the Electoral Board’s Weinstein.