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Virginia Tests the Water on Ranked-Choice Voting

people at voting booths
Voters cast their ballots during the 2020 general election. (Photo: Crixell Matthew/VPM News)

Republican convention-goers are trying it. So are local Democrats in Arlington. And beginning July 1, Virginia cities and counties can opt-in to ranked-choice voting for local elections -- so long as they foot the bill.

Three years after Maine introduced ranked-choice voting in statewide races, Virginia is taking small steps to follow in its footsteps. Advocates like Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) pitch the system as a way to diversify the field of candidates, allow for more substantive campaigns, and reduce the impression of “wasted” votes on long shot candidates.

“People are finally realizing that our current elections don't really work when there are more than two people on the ballot,” Hudson said. “Voters are tired of choosing between the candidate that they like most and the candidate they think can win, and rank choice voting solves that problem.”

Still, Hudson and others acknowledge obstacles ranging from regulatory tweaks to technology updates. Hudson is starting a new group, Ranked Choice Virginia, to help localities and citizens navigate the maze and set up the system. (Another group, FairVote Virginia, advocates for the policy in the General Assembly and at the local level.)

Another issue is voter confidence. Are Virginians ready for a new voting system after the most contentious election in modern history? Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, predicted it would take a few cycles for the electorate to get on board.

“You're going to have a large number of people -- maybe a small percentage of the population, but a large number of people -- who will insist that there's a conspiracy behind the numbers,” Sabato said in an interview last month. “They won't believe them.”

Hudson believes the local pilot will help ease voters into understanding the system.

“It starts at the municipal level,” she said. “Voters use it, voters like it. And then they ask, ‘Why can't I use this for all my elections?’”

Here’s how it works: If there’s more than one candidate in a race, voters rank their picks. If no one wins a majority, the least popular candidate is eliminated. Their votes are then distributed to those voters’ second picks. The process repeats until someone gets a majority.

Hudson’s legislation allows localities to pass ordinances allowing ranked-choice voting in local elections beginning July 1. The first ranked-choice ballots likely won’t appear until at least 2022 given the steps the state and local governments need to take.

The Virginia Department of Elections is currently drafting ranked-choice regulations. A spokesperson for the department, Andrea Gaines, said the Board of Elections is expected to consider those recommendations before July. 

Arlington County has already gone farther than most. The county registrar, Gretchen Reinemeyer, laid out a series of changes that need to happen at the state and local level before the county could adopt ranked choice voting. The list includes everything from updating state code on tabulating results to making sure election software can handle ranking a wide field of candidates.

Katie Cristol, vice chair of the Arlington County Board, called herself the most enthusiastic booster of the reform on the board. Cristol said there was broader interest in taking it up. Still, she said that may not happen until next year given the more pressing, pandemic-centric concerns. And Cristol said they would also need to conduct more outreach.

“It does require a tremendous amount of public education so that people can follow what's happening and have faith that their elections are transparent and fair,” she said.

Seven Republican gubernatorial candidates are testing the system in real time ahead of a May 8 convention. While past conventions have involved successive rounds of voting, this is the first statewide convention to use ranked-choice voting on a single ballot.

Some GOP candidates, like Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and businessman Glenn Youngkin, and have kept a friendly banter on the campaign trail. Advocates of ranked choice voting say it can help reduce personal attacks as candidates vie to become a backup choice for the other candidates’ voters.

Candidates have largely avoided direct attacks. But shadowy third party groups have emerged to fill the void. On Wednesday, Cox put out a statement disavowing an anti-Youngkin attack ad featuring the doctored images of Youngkin wearing a "Liberal" basketball jersey sent from a PO Box in Cox's Colonial Heights hometown. Representatives for two other leading contenders, Pete Snyder and Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), also denied their campaigns were behind the ad. Even as the candidates put on a friendly face, campaign finance paperwork due Thursday may shed more light on the factional fight for voters ahead of the convention.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.