Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

In a DC Board of Elections-hosted debate held in late September, moderator Fenit Nirappil asked candidates to, by a show of hands, indicate their support (or lack thereof) for ranked choice voting. When asked to explain his pro-ranked choice voting stance, Ed Lazere, a progressive candidate seeking one of the two at-large Council seats up for grabs this year, explained that under ranked choice voting, voters would not only pick their favorite candidate, but they would also select their second, third, fourth, and so on choices. “What that helps avoid is the situation where somebody can win the election—like the one that we’re in right now—with a very small percentage of the vote,” Lazere noted.

Ranked choice voting has been on the minds of City Paper readers for a while. When we asked our readers what issues they cared about in advance of the June primary, ranked choice, um, ranked among their most important issues. 

So what is ranked choice voting? And what would it mean in D.C., especially in a crowded race? 

***

When voters cast ballots in D.C., they choose one candidate per available seat. After all the votes are tallied, the candidate with the most votes wins. Oftentimes, the winning candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total votes cast, but that’s not always the case. Take, for example, the Ward 2 Democratic primary this year. Voters had to choose one of eight candidates, and the victor, Councilmember Brooke Pinto wound up winning with less than 30 percent of the total votes.

Under ranked choice voting, voters would rank all the candidates in order of preference. When the votes are tallied, if the leading candidate gets more than half the votes, vote counting is over and that candidate wins. But if no candidate has a majority of the votes, an instant runoff begins. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the ballots are counted again. In the second round of counting, ballots that had put an eliminated candidate in the #1 slot will be counted toward the voter’s second-choice candidate. The process repeats with eligible ballots counting for un-eliminated candidates in order of the voters’ preferences until a candidate has a majority of the votes.

Proponents of the system argue that it empowers voters and makes sure that ballots aren’t wasted. “That simple act of being able to indicate support for more than one person means that your relationship with candidates changes and the power of your vote changes,” says Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a national non-partisan, nonprofit organization focused on electoral reforms based in Takoma Park.

Richie says that ranked choice voting incentivizes voters to learn more about the candidates and incentivizes candidates to reach out to more voters. “You see a yard sign and you can just say, ‘that person’s locked up for someone else. It’s not worth my time.’ With ranked choice voting it’s always worth it to have a conversation.”

Charles Wilson, chair of the DC Democratic State Committee, says the committee has talked about ranked choice voting on multiple occasions, but that people land on both sides of the issue. Wilson points out that candidates can win with less than 20 percent of the vote and asks “is that really the will of the voters?” At the same time, Wilson writes that “We have discussed ranked choice voting as a party in the past, but did not come to a consensus due to lingering questions and concerns from some members.” One of the things the organization is considering is the impact ranked choice voting might have on voter turnout across the city. Some worry the change may depress turnout.

Research on the impact ranked choice voting has on voter turnout is mixed. A working paper by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney argues that ranked choice voting increased voter turnout by nearly 10 percent in the St. Paul-Minneapolis metro area. By contrast, a study by Jason McDaniel at San Francisco State University finds that ranked choice voting negatively affects turnout. McGinn’s study does address the methodology McDaniel uses, but does not look beyond St. Paul-Minneapolis. Academics and advocates seem to agree that ranked choice voting does require some voter education, no matter how simple or intuitive the idea of ranking your favorites is.

“While I personally see the benefit of ranked choice voting, I do not want to speak on behalf of the party as we have not come to a conclusion as a whole. We plan to have further discussion on this topic in the near future,” Wilson concludes.

Ranked choice voting is gaining popularity across the country and close to home. Maine started using the system in 2018 for state and federal primaries and Congressional general election races. This year Maine voters will use ranked choice voting to elect the President of the United States as well. Starting next year, Virginia localities can opt to use ranked choice voting for some local races. Takoma Park has been using it for local races since 2007.

In 2018, Maine saw a high-profile instant runoff in the race for its second Congressional district. Although Republican Bruce Poliquin led when ballots were first counted, Democrat Jared Golden wound up winning in an instant runoff.

In May of this year, the Post’s editorial board wrote in favor of ranked choice voting in the context of the Ward 2 Democratic primary, and outgoing At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced an amendment in 2019 to implement ranked choice voting in D.C. That bill has yet to receive a hearing in committee.

With 24 candidates seeking two seats in Tuesday’s at-large race, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a candidate wins with significantly less than 50 percent of the vote. In Grosso’s statement accompanying his bill, he hypothesized that D.C.’s publicly funded elections program might encourage more people to run for office, making this situation more common. “There’s no question that Fair Elections has made it easier and less of a financial burden for interested candidates,” says Wilson. It’s good to make elections more accessible, he says. It’s really expensive to run for office, and publicly funded elections open the door for candidates who aren’t already wealthy or well connected.

In “The Meaning of Democracy,” E.B. White wrote that “democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.” While not every ranked choice voting election results in a winning candidate getting more than half the total votes (if ballots have not ranked any un-eliminated candidates during a round of an instant runoff they are not counted), it may get you closer to more than half of the people. It’s up to them to be right more than half the time.